Soweto residents protesting Eskom’s power supply policy have blamed apartheid-era debt for the community’s staggering R18 billion arrears.
Following years of resistance to the power utility’s prepaid electricity meter project, which has often culminated in violence and intimidation towards Eskom staff, a large portion of Soweto still remains illegally connected to the power grid. As the community’s debt to Eskom rises unabated, the utility’s ability to keep the lights on in other parts of South Africa falters.
Load shedding, as a direct result of Eskom’s financial and operational failures – the former relative to mounting municipal debts and a culture of non-payment – has, in turn, hurt South Africa’s economic prospects. According to global rating agency Moody’s, Eskom remains the single greatest threat to the nation’s financial sustainability.
Eskom forces Soweto to ‘pay up’
In an attempt to claw back some control over the grim arrears, Eskom recently implemented a disconnection strategy in Soweto which resulted in thousands of households being disconnected from the grid due to non-payment. In response, residents of Soweto took to the streets in protest, arguing that the government had failed to uphold promises made after the dawn of democracy.
Speaking against the backdrop of the “Soweto Shutdown” movement, which was intended to mobilize residents in mass protest action this week, Benjamin Chisari of the Gauteng Housing Crisis Committee argued that electricity should be regarded as a basic human right.
Soweto protesters blame debt on apartheid
Chisari added that protests would continue until government scrapped “debts of the apartheid era”, saying:
“We have inherited debts of the apartheid regime. That’s why we are suffering so much. That’s why, today, they are wanting us to pay for electricity. In fact, electricity is a basic human right. We are not going to pay.”
Chisari also called on other communities to join the protest against Eskom, which is expected to climax when the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) lead a march to the utility’s headquarters on Friday 28 February.
Both Eskom and President Cyril Ramaphosa have pleaded with residents of Soweto to pay for services provided, adding that while the culture of non-payment for services had a place in the apartheid era as an effective boycott measure of resistance, there was no room for defaulting in democratic South Africa.
Ramaphosa added that national debts owed to the utility – of which Soweto’s accounts for more than half – were crippling Eskom’s ability to perform.
Soweto’s debt to Eskom written-off in 2003
Former Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe previously explained that Soweto’s debt to Eskom was nullified in 2003, shortly after the area became part of the Johannesburg municipality. Soweto’s debt at the time totaled R1.3 billion. Phasiwe noted that this was done “in an effort to start from a clean slate”.
According to recent statistics published by Eskom, fewer than 200 000 households in South Africa’s most densely populated area have been equipped with prepaid meters. Making matters worse, Eskom has revealed that roughly 60% of those households are guilty of illegal tampering.