“Eskom is a burden. It needs to be restructured.It cannot deliver; it’s failing the people,” said Thomas Nkgweng, a resident of Braamfischerville Phase 2 in Soweto. This section of the township has not had electricity since August and the residents are in despair.
Nkgweng said residents protested by blocking roads on Monday last week after attempts at fixing the problem through a petition did not work.
Nkgweng played a leading role in organising people to sign the petition, which was sent to Eskom. The document called for Eskom to come to audit their area so that people can start paying for electricity. “Eskom needs to look into its house. There is something wrong with Eskom: it needs to be privatised and then it will be productive. It must run on commercial terms,” said Nkgweng, raising his voice.
Before the cut off in August, another section in Phase 2 had already been without electricity since April. Nkgweng believes that the issue has to do with people tampering with Eskom’s cables to try to dodge paying for electricity. He said a lot of people interfered with the cables and that it now appeared only 10% of people are paying for electricity. Eskom had a lot of executives paid in the millions, he said, but were “failing because they cannot come with strategies to counterattack the tampering”.
The problem of not paying for electricity in Soweto is endemic, with some residents in areas such as Braamfischerville and Meadowlands, telling the Mail & Guardian that before prepaid meters were installed, they did not pay.
Currently, the country’s largest township, which has1.3-million residents, owes R18-billion to the failing Eskom. In its financial results for the year ending on March 31, Eskom showed that the total debt by households was R35.7-billion, of which municipalities owed 56% and Soweto 37%. Eskom, with debts of R450-billion, threatens to bring the country to its financial knees if a solution is not found.
In July, President Cyril Ramaphosa called on residents in nonpaying areas to start paying for electricity. Speaking at a conference at the University of Johannesburg, Ramaphosa said the government was providing electricity to nonpaying areas, including Soweto, and that needed to change.
Earlier this month, the ANC’s national executive committee said it would lead a mass campaign to encourage communities to pay for services. But residents canvassed by the M&G said they cannot afford to pay because they are unemployed.
In Meadowlands Zone 8 in Soweto, some women are standing in a group waiting to bet on Fafi. The section had no electricity for nearly three months after a transformer exploded. It was restored in August. One woman who did not want to be named said Eskom installed electricity meters in September, but that the residents cannot afford prepaid electricity. Another woman said: “The units are tiny, if you pay electricity for R100 it does not last.”
The women said they are unhappy with their meters because not every resident agreed to the installations. Asked if they paid for their electricity, the group said that their grandmothers, who are the owners of the houses, did pay.
A pensioner whose house was a short distance from the group disputed their claims that the meters were installed against their will. She said there were meetings with the community about installing them. “They told us but people are not truthful. We always blame the government, but we also do not like to tell the truth,” she said.
Other residents in Braamfischerville claim the issue of nonpayment is often exacerbated by Eskom workers who offer residents illegal services to tamper with their meter boxes.
Karen Heese, an economist at Municipal IQ, which specialises in the monitoring and assessment of South Africa’s municipalities, said the culture of nonpayment can be attributed to several factors, including affordability and long-standing resistance to paying for services that are expected, or promised, to be free.
The issue can be solved with political support if the electricity is affordable.
Eskom told the Mail & Guardian that more than 90% of its overdue debt is with municipalities and Soweto. It said to tackle the issue, it has converted 54 646 Soweto residents to prepaid meters and, this year, is aiming to convert 15 000 more customers to this system. The utility did not respond to a question asking whether its employees are part of the problem.
Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian