Soweto versus Eskom: protestors claim the power utility is a bully

By Botho Molosankwe for IOL

Eskom has hit back at allegations made against it by organisers of the Soweto Shutdown who claimed that the power utility’s bullying tendencies were the reason they had taken to the streets.

The Electricity Crisis Movement had planned to paralyse Soweto on Tuesday saying Eskom treats them terribly compared to people living in areas such as Sandton.

While the power utility is battling financially, everything was blamed on the Soweto debt and as result, the area was load shed longer and frequently compared to other areas, said the Movement’s Trevor Ngwane.

“Eskom’s problems did not start with the Soweto debt although every cent and billion counts. Eskom, just like many State-Owned Enterprises, has problems with corruption and mismanagement but they’re using Soweto debt as a fig leaf cover up.

“Another thing is that if a substation explodes or needs maintenance, they don’t send someone to repair it on the grounds that Soweto residents are not paying.

“It is a myopic strategy to let infrastructure go into disrepair; it’s the shortsightedness and arrogance of Eskom. Soweto people are not paying because they are poor,” he said.

However, the power utility came out guns blazing, saying Soweto currently owes Eskom R18-billion despite the fact that they scrapped the township’s debt twice in the past with an agreement that customers will start paying.

That, however, has not yielded the desired results hence the huge debt, Eskom said.

“We have however agreed to park the debt for those customers on split pre-paid meters on condition that they are loyal in purchasing electricity from Eskom vendors and not bypassing the meters for a period of 36 months.”

Eskom also said the government also provides free electricity to indigent people but that was a process administered by municipalities who uses their own criteria to identify deserving customers.

“In the case of Soweto, the City of Johannesburg administers this process. Customers are encouraged to partake so they can benefit as this will alleviate pressure.”

Ngwane also accused Eskom of loadshedding Soweto frequently and longer than other areas as a form of punishment for their debt, something that the power utility denies.

According to Eskom, load shedding follows a schedule on the power utility’s website. However, sometimes power outages occur due to network faults, vandalism and theft of infrastructure outside load shedding, the power utility said.

Eskom also said they have over the years tried to disconnect those who are not paying but that became unsafe for their staff as some residents resisted that effort.

“We have customers who are honouring their payments on monthly basis however most are not.

“In some cases, those that we managed to disconnect simply reconnected themselves and unfortunately this meant they had to be billed for their consumption and since it was not paid, it also accumulated interest.

“Eskom is however still disconnecting all customers found to have bypassed and bridged meters as well as illegal connections.

“It is to be noted that there has been numerous interventions supported by the Department of Public Enterprises in the past yielding no positive results on the growing debt. We are currently converting post-paid meters to prepaid as mentioned above in order to stop the debt from growing further.”

The Shutdown of Soweto that the Movement had planned on Tuesday in response to their displeasure with Eskom, however, failed to take off.

In one instance, the South African Police Services and Joburg Metro Police fired rubber bullets and teargas to disperse a group of about 30 protesters who were trying to block an intersection in Orlando.

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