Unhappiness with electricity costs ignites protests in Pietermaritzburg

| Ntombi Mbomvu
Residents block the entrance to Sobantu township, Pietermaritzburg. Picture by Ntombi Mbomvu.

On Monday, the Sobantu community in Pietermaritzburg took to the streets with burning tyres demanding that a prepaid electricity system rolled out in April 2014 be removed from their homes. Residents say the march came about because Msunduzi Municipality failed to attend a meeting with the residents as planned.

The entrance to Sobantu was blocked. No vehicles were allowed to enter the township, including buses, taxis and private cars. Workers were unable to go to work and some of them joined the march. Schools also could not open.

Sobantu resident Fano Gumede said he was marching because “the system is expensive …We agreed because we were told that it was introduced to avoid izinyoka (electricity stealing).”

“Another agreement was that residents owing for electricity would have their debts written off. Most of the residents were sinking in electricity debts and the new prepaid system was going to help in those terms. The debts included those of rates, water and electricity.”

“What happens with the new prepaid system is that when one buys R100 electricity, the municipality takes 40% of the electricity bought. No one told us that is how we were going to be paying our debts.”

“According to what they are telling us they have included all the water, rates and electricity debts that an individual owes,” said Gumede.

Sobantu community protest against electricity payments and 40% deductions for arrears. Picture by Ntombi Mbomvu.

An elderly citizen, Martha Ngwenya, said no one had informed them. “It was a surprise. We were shocked to learn about it from the electricity slip. The money that is being taken off differs from each individual. Sometimes when I buy R50 electricity, they take R30, and that means I’m left with R20 electricity. That doesn’t last me a day. It is only the lights that work for that amount of electricity.

“Most of the households are now using fire to cook. We make fire outside and cook using fire. We are trying to save. I’m unemployed and I can’t afford buying electricity everyday. What we want is our old system back. We want this system out,” said Ngwenya.

Residents sang struggle songs directed at the police. Sobantu is a township which has given birth to struggle icons such as Mfenendala Xaba and Truman Magubane.

The marchers demanded the presence of the mayor, Chris Ndlela, but he was reported to be “out of town”.

Eunice Majola and Jabu Ngubo of the executive committee of Msunduzi Municipality said residents must elect 10 delegates who will discuss the matter with the council. The residents refused and demanded to see the mayor.

“We want that man here. If he doesn’t show up, send us the premier,” said one resident in the crowd.

A resident’s electricity receipt for R200, showing the R80 deducted for arrears. Picture by Ntombi Mbomvu.

“We will block the road until they deliver what we are demanding,” said Gumede. “We are not going anywhere until they listen and meet our demands. This has been going on for a very long time and it has to end. We are not fighting with anyone but we are demanding what is best for us as residents.”

Ward councillor Thandi Matiwane said there was not much she could say. “As you can see, people are not happy about the electricity. They say they want their old system of electricity back. They want officials from the municipality to come and explain and fix this.”

Mxolisi Nkosi, municipal manager, said two years ago officials had a meeting with the Sobantu community where the community asked for metered electricity to be replaced with a prepaid system, because they complained that the metered electricity was very expensive.

He said the community pleaded that they must be treated differently, since they were already in debt from metered electricity.

Nksoi said the municipality lost R90 million per annum on electricity.

“We agreed and implemented the system. We sat down with them and told them that there would be a condition of a 40% deduction from a purchase,” said Matiwane. “That is why when a person buys a R100 electricity, R40 is being taken off to settle the previous debt of the metered electricity. The people know and we even hired a community media liaison officer … They are aware. It came to us as a shock when we received reports that they know nothing about this.”

Residents intend to resume the protest on Thursday.

Police were on hand at the protest. Picture by Ntombi Mbomvu.

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