It is time for Soweto to also pay for electricity
26 July 2019
In Soweto, the installation of prepaid meters has often been met with violence. It will take more than Sona to change attitudes.
By Martin Williams, former editor of The Citizen.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is mocked for dreaming about bullet trains and a smart city while existing trains and cities are dysfunctional – but he also deserves praise.
Ramaphosa has long ties with Soweto, from primary school in the '50s to rent boycotts in the '80s. He still votes there, despite living in Hyde Park. So it was significant when he said during the State of the Nation address (Sona), 'The days of boycotting payment are over'.
Wow. We have come a long way. Nonpayment for services was integral to the ANC's struggle-era strategy to make the country ungovernable. Changing that mindset was always going to be difficult.
Since 1994, the culture of protest has morphed to one of entitlement and criminality, where izinyoka (snakes) specialise in illegal electricity connections to thousands.
And Soweto is the epicentre, with Eskom debt there reaching R18 billion, despite write-offs over the decades. Soweto's freeloading outstrips those of all other townships.
Consider, too, that Ramaphosa faces populist opposition within his party and from parties to the left. The antithesis of this populism is when you tell people they must pay for services.
In this climate, with his authority daily challenged, Ramaphosa knew the political risks when he declared: "As a country, we must assert the principle that those who use electricity must pay for it. Failure to pay endangers our entire electricity supply, our economy and our efforts to create jobs."
Perhaps emboldened by Sona, in which Ramaphosa said Eskom is too vital to the economy to be allowed to fail, the power utility announced tough new measures. According to MyBroadband, Eskom will no longer be replacing substations and transformers in areas where people are not paying for electricity.
Eskom has experienced violent protests and damage to infrastructure in some places where there are illegal connections. These include Braamfischerville, Klipspruit, Ivory Park and Orange Farm in Johannesburg and Winterveld in Tshwane.
In Soweto, the installation of prepaid meters has often been met with violence. It will take more than Sona to change attitudes. Ramaphosa knows this, having been part of Soweto rent crisis talks in 1988. Now he must persuade new generations of community leaders that times have changed.
Until a culture of payment becomes entrenched in Soweto, Ramaphosa's words risk being dismissed along with his fantasy trains and city of dreams. And although getting customers to pay is necessary, it will not be enough to save Eskom, whose debt was recently estimated at R490 billion.
Even if all the electricity theft and damage to infrastructure are stopped that, too, will not be enough. There have to be more sweeping plans. That is part of the reason for market hesitance about Eskom's ability to raise finance.
According to BusinessLIVE, some investors are "baulking at the prospect" of more sovereign bonds being issued to fund the R230-billion bailout earmarked for Eskom over the next 10 years.
In fact, lack of clarity around Eskom and SA's debt-to-GDP trajectory could mean more reliance on tax collection in order to keep the lights on.
So, we'll all be paying more. It's time for Soweto to pay, too. Khokha.
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