Soweto residents lose first round in battle over electricity

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

They asked the court to force Eskom to reconnect them, and to cap tariffs at R100 pm. From Moneyweb.

Residents stand in protest after judge dismissed case on the grounds that it lacked urgency. Image: Supplied

Residents stand in protest after judge dismissed case on the grounds that it lacked urgency. Image: Ciaran Ryan

Several hundred Soweto residents got blown out of the Johannesburg High Court on Wednesday, after asking the judge for an urgent order compelling Eskom to reconnect their electricity and cap their monthly payments at R100.

Acting Judge Marcus Senyatsi threw the case out of court on the grounds that the case lacked urgency. He also said the court application, prepared by King Sibiya of the Lungelo Lethu Human Rights Foundation, looked more like a petition.

Read: Soweto residents to take Eskom to court

Eskom said it found it difficult to respond to some of the community’s allegations and asked that the matter be struck from the roll.

Many of the residents have had their electricity disconnected for more than six months. The case must now be placed on the ordinary roll and await a court date, probably well into 2020.

“Of course we are disappointed by the judge’s decision,” says Sibiya. “I was denied the right to argue the case for the residents of Soweto, most of them sick or elderly, because I am not a lawyer. We regard this as a denial of access to justice and this is something that we intend to take up with the Department of Justice.

“There is no question that this is an urgent matter, given the escalating service delivery protests that are happening around Soweto.”

Sibiya and other community members were frustrated at the judge’s adherence to court formalities, rather than the substance of the case and its broader impact on human rights.

Read: Electricity: Who pays what

This week actor Patrick Shai was injured when shot with rubber bullets by police, as he tried to stop the police from using force against community members protesting service disconnection.

Service protests have erupted in several parts of Soweto in recent months. Eskom’s latest annual report suggests arrears of R18 billion from Soweto, out of total arrears of about R40 billion.

Soweto community activist Monde Mngqibisa says frustrations are growing in Soweto, as most of the applicants in the case have prepaid meters but have been disconnected because Eskom has failed to do basic maintenance. The court papers also suggest that some of the meters have malfunctioned or caught fire. “We are not giving up,” says Mngqibisa. “We will regroup and re-present the case.”

‘Group punishment’

Mngqibisa says he has not been affected by the disconnections but approached Eskom on behalf of community members. Some residents were told by Eskom to get their neighbours to start paying their electricity before their homes would be reconnected, which is a form of group punishment, according to Sibiya.

Moneyweb spoke to several of the applicants in the case, who dismissed the notion that Eskom disconnected their electricity for being in arrears. “That’s not true,” says Sello Mahsiloane, one of the applicants. “We are on prepaid meters and the reason we are disconnected is because the mini sub-station Eskom has [has] been broken for months and has not been repaired.

“Yet [President Cyril] Ramaphosa’s house nearby has electricity. How is that possible?

“My child failed school because there is no light at night for studying.”

Mashiloane is a diabetic and says he is forced to use candles for light and a “gel” stove for cooking. Martha Sedibe has a two-week-old grandchild living with her, and has been forced to use candles and a paraffin stove for six months since Eskom cut off power in the area in June. She is also on a prepaid meter and normally spent R300 to R400 a month on electricity.

Pamela Thobela of White City in Soweto says parts were stolen from an electricity sub-station in her area several months ago, and residents in her area have been without power since then.

Sibiya says he is in discussion with several legal organisations to provide representation for the next phase of the battle to restore lights to Soweto.

Read: Army protects Eskom workers as they remove illegal connections 

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.