Eskom versus Soweto: The battle for power

Residents say they cannot afford to pay their electricity bills, the utility says they must. Patrick Laurence reports.

Soweto, crucible of the resistance to white rule forged in the 1970s and 1980s, is the site of a new struggle of vital importance to the African National Congress government at local and even national level.

The main adversaries are Eskom, South Africa's giant government-owned electricity utility, and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC). But the ANC has intervened on the side of Eskom to establish itself as a participant in the conflict and to lay its prestige on the line.

Throughout most of last year the struggle pitted Eskom officials against Soweto volunteers operating under the broad aegis of the SECC. Eskom, seeking to recover the nearly R1 billion it said was owed by Soweto residents in unpaid electricity bills, sent in special squads to cut off electricity from households judged to be too deeply in arrears. The volunteers, armed with little more than knives, pliers and insulation tape or improvised insulators made from plastic bags, responded by reconnecting the targeted households.

The two sides clashed. On at least one occasion shots were fired. Eskom officials were reportedly wounded.

At the height of Eskom's campaign to pressurise Soweto householders into paying their electricity bills the number of disconnections ran to tens of thousands. An SABC Special Assignment documentary put the accumulated total of disconnections at 58,000. A survey published in August last year by the Canadian-funded Municipal Services Project based at the University of the Witwatersrand found that more than 60 per cent of the households its researchers interviewed had experienced cut-offs in the past 12 months.
No immediate figures were available for illegal reconnections. Eskom was conducting an audit to determine the number of households receiving electricity unlawfully when Focus went to press. But, judging by the indefatigable energy of the volunteers and their entrepreneurial ingenuity, it was a not inconsiderable number.

Since last year's running battles between Eskom employees and Soweto activists the struggle has entered a new phase. Eskom, backed by a range of government institutions, including the Ministries of Public Enterprises and Min-erals and Energy and the Johannes- burg City Council, has launched an initiative to resolve the dispute. Entitled the Service Delivery Framework (SDF), its primary target area is Soweto, but its focus is broader than Soweto: it encompasses the West and East Rand and the Vaal, all of which contain large black townships founded by the previous government, as well as the mainly white affluent residential area of Sandton.

Figures quoted by Eskom show that resistance to payment is concentrated in Soweto - South Africa's largest township - but not confined to it. While Soweto collectively owes Eskom R922 million, the total debt for the entire area is R1.3 million. That means that a debt of more than R370 million has accumulated in adjacent areas. Though volunteers working to neutralise cut-offs have not been as conspicuous in these areas as in Soweto, that could change. Operation Khanyisa or Light-Up, the SECC's response to the severing of electricity supplies, might easily spread into townships across the Reef and in the Vaal without a positive plan to counter it. Clearly Eskom wants to pre-empt the spread of non-payment and direct action against its policy of cutting the supply of electricity to defaulters.

The central feature of the settlement proposed by Eskom and the participating government authorities is to place 50 per cent of the outstanding debt of householders in a suspense account, unless they are "registered pensioners", in which case 100 per cent of their arrears is placed in the suspense account. On their side, defaulters have to "make arrangements" to pay the 50 per cent of their arrears not in the suspense account and undertake to settle their immediate and pending current accounts. For those householders whose electricity has been disconnected, the deal offered a further incentive for a limited period - reconnection for R50 or R25 for pensioners instead of the usual R200.
To discourage reversion to illegal reconnections Eskom is making "a concerted effort to educate customers on the dangers and consequences of illegal practices". Reinforcing that is a warning: "Eskom will embark on an extensive audit to identify illegal connections, vandalised equipment and meters which have been tampered with. Strict criminal charges and prosecutions will follow."

Householders who enter into the agreement are offered another inducement. While there is no guarantee that the suspended arrears will be scrapped, that option will be considered if the contracting householders pay their current accounts and honour their commitment to pay back the arrears which have not been transferred to the suspended account. Failure to do so, however, will result in the application of "normal credit management procedures".
Susan Chapman, of Eskom, cites the number of defaulting household heads who have successfully negotiated with Eskom for reconnections; she presents it as evidence that the settlement is winning substantial support from formerly defaulting consumers. In the whole of the central region of Gauteng, there have been 84,300 reconnections, 45,000 of them in Soweto, since the deal was put on the table last December, she says. Chapman cannot say whether these figures include householders seeking to substitute a lawful reconnection for an unlawful one. But, on the face of it, the figures seem quite impressive.

Trevor Ngwane, chairperson of the SECC, is unimpressed, however. He believes Soweto households that have accepted the deal are "hedging their bets". As he puts it, "People sign the Eskom proposals. But they attend SECC meetings." He predicts that many will find the repayments of even half of their accumulated arrears, coupled with the payment of their monthly bills, an impossible financial burden. When they are then targeted by - to use Eskom's terminology - "normal credit management", disillusion will set in.

Ngwane does not say so but if this is the case bills will be unpaid, arrears will mount and a new round of Eskom cut-offs will start, leading to anger, and grateful acceptance by targeted households of the assistance of the streetwise volunteers. The wheel will turn full circle and the SECC will once again find itself at the centre of a protracted struggle for - to use the committee's vocabulary - an affordable electricity price for the historically deprived people of Soweto.

The agreement does appear to be characterised by a major structural weakness: the SECC is not party to the accord, having been excluded because, to quote Chapman, it is not headed by "legitimate elected leaders". Tom Lodge, professor of political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, detects a similarity between the exclusion of the SECC and the refusal of the authorities to negotiate with the "unelected leaders" of civic organisations affiliated to the United Democratic Front during the apartheid era. To be successful, Lodge observes, negotiations for a settlement have to be as inclusive as possible, and the SECC does have "some popularity". He contrasts the SECC's visible support of the electricity consumers in their fight against Eskom with the inconspicuous presence of elected city councillors when households "with two electric plates and four overhead lights" suddenly find themselves presented with a R1,500 electricity bill at the end of the month.

While the SECC has been excluded from the settlement negotiations that led to the agreement, Eskom and its government backers have had no qualms about including the South African National Civic Organisation, though Sanco's visibility during last year's struggle was virtually non-existent. Sanco's credibility has been adversely affected in recent years. In 2000 several civic leaders broke away to found a rival organisation, the National Association of Residents and Civic Organisations, and in August last year its founding president, Moses Mayekiso, resigned to form the Congress of South African Community-based Organisations.

Lodge does not endorse the view that Sanco is moribund, but he agrees that the era of "bands of T-shirted activists has gone". Ngwane contends that Sanco representatives have been included to invest the settlement with an aura of popular support. "They are being used to rubber stamp decisions by public enterprises minister Jeff Radebe," he states. If he is right, the stratagem may well undermine rather than buttress the settlement.

The exclusion of the SECC is justified on two interconnected grounds. First, that the SECC leadership consists of a posse of agitators with limited genuine support and that the SECC will wither and die if it is marginalised. Second, that the underlying cause of the electricity crisis is the culture of non-payment, not electricity prices that are too high for Soweto consumers, many of whom are either unemployed or pensioners.

Kenny Fihla, who serves on the mayoral committee of the Johannesburg City Council and is responsible for the city's financial affairs, endorses the first ground. "There is absolutely no doubt that there was a political agenda behind the electricity payment boycott", he states. "Not a single attempt was made to arrange a meeting with Eskom." Emphasising his point, he adds:

"The fact that people, knowing full well that the problem lay with Eskom, organised marches to city councillors' houses and, in some cases, ripped up the infrastructure and agitated for violence, clearly indicates that there was a political agenda. They wanted to create a crisis and ride on that crisis for politically ulterior motives." He categorises the "agitators" as a miscellany of unsuccessful candidates who stood for election to the city council, expelled members of the ANC and supporters of organisations opposed to the ANC.

Fihla does not completely exonerate Eskom. He describes the utility's credit control as "not very strategic" in its inclusion of the unemployed and pensioners and criticises it for not perfecting its billing system. Those failures, he says, have given households who have no real excuse not to pay their bills an opportunity to "hide behind the indigent".

But these observations about Eskom's managerial errors do not gainsay his central conclusion - that political malcontents, reactivating the culture of non-payment for their own ends, are the essential driving force behind the boycott. Radebe goes even further. He describes the SECC as a "gang of criminals".

When Fihla's views were put to Ngwane for reaction, he observed: "Electricity is a political issue. Fihla's choice is to serve the rich and squeeze the poor. Our choice is to serve the poor." He asked rhetorically: "If they put up Kenny Fihla in the next election and I stand, who do you think they will vote for?" His smiling demeanour notwithstanding, there was a hard edge to his voice. The explanation for that lies in the past.

Ngwane, a young man with charisma, served as the ANC ward councillor for Pimville in Soweto until he was expelled for publicly opposing the ANC-approved plan for Johannes- burg known as Igoli 2002. His constituents were suspicious of the plan, believing it to be one that would benefit the rich and harm the poor, he explained. In voicing opposition to the Igoli plan, he was doing no more than fulfilling his duty to represent their views, he said. He stood as an independent in the December 2000 elections and, facing a barrage of propaganda from ANC heavyweights, still won a third of the votes. Seated in his office in Cosatu House - which seems to serve as base for assorted champions of the poor and different strands of socialism - Ngwane appeared to think that time was on his side. It was apparent, too, that in his mind many issues were subsumed in the struggle over electricity in Soweto, that, in a sense, it was merely one aspect of the clash between those speaking for the poor and those identifying with, and seeking to appease, the rich.

The outcome of the battle may rest on a major point of contention between the adversaries: whether Eskom's tariffs are reasonable or not and whether the majority of Soweto households can afford them. Eskom's tariff rate for Soweto is 32,79 cents per kilowatt, expressed in shorthand form as 32,79c/kWh. Eskom describes the tariff as the "lowest tariff for residential customers that are low to medium users of electricity". The implication of Eskom's statement is clear: the rate is not excessive and is affordable by all but the most indigent households in Soweto.

The Municipal Services Project, which Ngwane states frankly helped the SECC become a "mass organisation", disagrees strongly. Quoting what appear to be earlier tariffs than those cited by Eskom, it says Soweto's "low-income households" pay 25,59c/kWh as against 12,83c/kWh for the manufacturing sector and 12,58/kWh for mining. Moreover, according to the Project's monograph, The Electricity Crisis in Soweto, the Johannesburg City Council charges its predominantly white suburban residents "the lowest domestic consumer price in the country". The Johannesburg electricity utility, City Power, quotes a rate of 33c/kWh for its households.

These quoted figures confuse the issue. They recall Mark Twain's observation: "There are lies, damned lies and statistics". In the absence of clarity Soweto's residents will either believe what they wish to or what they are persuaded to. A propaganda battle lies ahead. Far from being won, the fight has just begun.

President Thabo Mbeki's promise of free electricity made in the run up to the December 2000 local government elections complicates rather than clarifies the issue. The promised free 50/kWh per month covers a mere 10 per cent of the average monthly bill in Soweto, according to Municipal Services Project calculations. But nearly a third of Soweto residents believe that the pledge means either that all electricity will be supplied free of charge or that all arrears will be written off. By raising expectations, the promise may increase resentment, not mollify it.

There is another complication. Eskom has not yet begun to provide the free electricity quota to Soweto residents. Having established 13 pilot sites throughout South Africa to see how best to proceed, it plans to make recommendations to the cabinet in April on the provision of the free electricity to Soweto. Between now and the first flow of free electricity there is ample time for further misunderstanding, especially if Eskom reverts to "normal credit control" procedures against consumers who do not - or cannot - settle their current accounts and pay back the 50 per cent of their arrears.