PREMIER’S POWER PLAN
‘Please hear us’ – Soweto residents urge Lesufi amid ongoing electricity crisis
More than 200 Soweto residents gathered at Kopanong Community Hall on Tuesday afternoon to hear what Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi had planned to solve the electricity crisis.
“We don’t like what we wake up to every day, but we are failed by our public servants. Can you please hear us?” said Andile Kunene, who has lived in Dobsonville, Soweto his whole life.
Soweto residents — some who haven’t had electricity for more than a week, others for more than a month — gathered at Kopanong Community Hall in Dobsonville on Tuesday, 14 November, anxious to get the chance to hear from and speak to Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi about their ongoing problems with electricity.
By 2pm, when the meeting was meant to begin, the hall was full, and more than 100 residents had to sit and stand outside and listen through speakers.
An hour after the scheduled start of the meeting, the premier’s adviser, Mxolisi Xayiya, and the head of customer relations at Eskom, Henry Thulani Mtshali, addressed the residents.
Premier Lesufi arrived an hour after that, having apparently been caught up in an emergency meeting.
After listening to the officials, several residents lined up in front of a microphone to have their say.
Warona Sekonyela from Dobsonville Extension 4, who hasn’t had power for more than a month and a half, was first in line to address the premier. “We have a situation where we have been blamed for turning off our own lights,” said Sekonyela.
“However, it’s important to note, if Eskom did not switch off the lights of all people, even the ones that are paying, sabotagers [sic] would not be able to come in and destroy the infrastructure because it will be piping hot and they will get electrocuted.”
Along with requesting better security (cameras and barriers at substations, and new infrastructure to be built underground), Sekonyela asked Lesufi to investigate Eskom employees and procurement processes.
“Please look into those things and understand that even though they [Eskom] may promise us those things today because you are here, when you are gone they are very unreachable.”
Sekonyela, who is a community leader in Dobsonville, added, “You have the muscle to pressure them to do their jobs, and we are just ordinary people who want to do our jobs and continue with our lives.”
Andile Kunene, who wants to start community programmes for young boys in Dobsonville, said, “If you are a public representative, you are a servant to the people. But we have people that want to be worshipped,” which elicited cheers of agreement from the audience.
“The only time they will start respecting us is when they want us to vote for them in an election,” Kunene added.
Maybell Dipale, who lives in RDP housing in Thubelisha, told Daily Maverick that despite paying for electricity, she hasn’t had it since last Monday.
And this is not the first time. In 2019 she had no electricity during the whole of winter because of a burnt-out transformer, which was replaced only in September that year.
Dipale, who is in her seventies, lives with her grandchildren and said having no electricity “is extremely serious because the kids are writing exams”.
“It’s very, very hard. Last night I nearly burned myself, because I had to put water in a pot on a gas stove.”
Her neighbour Eunice Makhathina, said, “I’m the one who’s been buying electricity for my house, since day one, until today. But why must I die for other people? What must I do now?”
She said many elderly people who have high blood pressure can’t refrigerate their medication.
“We want to know what the action plan is,” said Thabo Nduyani from Dobsonville Extension 2, who hasn’t had power for eight days.
Nduyani said that not having electricity for eight days “has affected me a lot, because most of the people buy groceries for the whole month, so the food rotted, and got wasted during the week”.
“I’m honestly, truly sorry for what you’re going through. It breaks my heart,” Lesufi said after hearing the residents’ woes. “I attend these types of meetings almost every day.”
Lesufi acknowledged the communication problems, pledging to set up a platform on which Eskom informs his office and the community of issues, giving them a chance to rectify these before Eskom disconnects the power.
Other interventions included a R6,000 fine for anyone who buys electricity from dodgy vendors or those who have illegal connections.
“We need to separate those who can afford to pay and those who cannot afford to pay. And be honest with ourselves,” said Lesufi, which was met by murmurs of agreement.
“The painful part is that there are people who can afford to pay and are hiding behind those who can’t.”
Lesufi said that more than 500 transformers would be replaced across the province, adding that the Gauteng provincial government had set aside R1.2-billion to replace transformers “so that before Christmas, we must not have this problem of transformers in Gauteng”.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Pushing the limits: Why load shedding puts even more pressure on an ageing electrical system
This funding is part of the provincial government’s new five-point strategy to respond to the electricity crisis, which Lesufi said came about through collaboration with the National Energy Crisis Committee, local governments and energy experts.
The five points are:
- Eliminating all illegal power connections;
- Installing smart meters in every home and business;
- Improving revenue collection;
- Clearing the indigent register; and
- Replacing all damaged transformers.
“The province plans to include smart grid technology to increase the energy infrastructure’s security and resilience, accelerate the informal settlement communities’ formalisation to enable electrification and reduce unlawful connections,” Lesufi said when the plan was released.
“We also want to adopt a backyard dwellers policy to accommodate landlords and tenants.”
“We went to the President and said, ‘President you went to Soweto the last time to campaign, and the people of Soweto complained that they do not have electricity, and secondly they have debts which they do not know where it comes from and they requested that that debt is erased,’” the premier said in Sesotho to the Soweto residents.
“So we persuaded the President, and he agreed. We also spoke to the minister of finance … So the debt that was owed to Eskom by municipalities was removed/erased.”
Lesufi said that they were asking municipalities and Eskom to erase the electricity debt, “so we start on a clean slate. Some of these debts belong to our great-great-grandparents.”
He said that Eskom had agreed to erase municipalities’ debt. “The only thing we are asking now is that it does not end there; municipalities must also go down to the people to remove/erase their debt.”
Lesufi’s spokesperson, Sizwe Pamla, confirmed Lesufi was referring to the debt relief programme that was outlined in the February Budget to allow municipalities and provinces that are struggling to pay electricity bills to negotiate with Eskom and the national government.
“The debt … will be written off over a three-year period, in equal annual tranches,” Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said when delivering the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement on 1 November.
“This is provided the municipality complies with set conditions, [which] include enforcing strict credit controls, enhanced revenue collection [and] up-to-date payment of Eskom monthly current account.”
He added that by October this year, 67 applications for debt relief had been submitted, totalling R56.8-billion or 97% of the total municipal debt owed to Eskom at the end of March.
The premier said he would be back in exactly a week to check up on the progress.
After the meeting, Soweto resident Dipale said the meeting was fruitful, and the premier was “talking sense to me”.
“Let’s give him a chance, he made time to listen to us…but 30 years don’t forget,” Dobsonville resident Kunene said referring to the ANC’s time in power. DM