Beyond blackouts: access to power

2014-04-03 00:00

I WALKED into my Spar several weeks ago to harried families swarming around the delicatessen, snatching up the last of the roasted chickens. One of the staff, with a trolley full of hastily constructed salad, pushing past me to restock the dwindling salad counter, whispered to me: “The lights went off in the big houses.”

I shuffled towards the roasted chickens to hear the agitated mutterings among the throng.

“Damn Eskom!” “Wet coal?” “Think of the loss in business!”

Feeling claustrophobic, I went looking for the woman with the salad replacements. “And you? Are you stocking up with roasted chickens too?” I asked.

She laughed. “My sister, the story is this: my family hasn’t had electricity for most of the past week; we ran out of money. When I get paid, we will buy lights, but that will be only in two days’ time.”

“So what do you think about all these people here hustling for supper?”

“Don’t think bad of me,” she said, “but I think that blackouts are a good thing. These people here do not know what it is like to live without lights. Blackouts give people a little taste of what it is like. Maybe if they feel what it is like, maybe they will make it easier for people like me to be able to afford the lights my family needs.”

Could blackouts be the great equaliser? Do blackouts make people feel what it is like to not have electricity?

Having extra money to buy ready-made hot meals and alternative energy cushions it. However, what if people didn’t have money to buy hot food, if there was no alternative but candles and asphyxiating paraffin, if residents had to scour the suburbs for wood? Maybe people would really feel what it is like.

Perhaps then there would be more solidarity with people who struggle to afford the electricity that they need.

Think about how you felt when the lights went off in the last blackout. Imagine living like that frequently, and for large periods of time, during the month. Imagine if you had no extra money to absorb the blow, no access to safe alternative energy sources, no neighbour to assist you with electricity for cooking, hot water, keeping the fridge running or doing the laundry. What would this mean for your family?

Shouldn’t it be that all of us should access sufficient volumes of safe electricity at prices that we can all afford, because it is good for all of us?

The reality is that for the majority of poor households in Pietermaritzburg —  the 68 179 households with a prepaid meter — keeping the lights on, homes warm, bodies clean and food cooked is a daily struggle. For these households, electricity is always unaffordable. Prepaid meters are typically installed in poor households and they have no choice in the matter.

Households with prepaid meters pay 50 cents more per kWh than households on credit meters. The typical monthly electricity cost for a poor household on a prepaid meter is R432,67. This is a third of the total household income for a family living off a pension.

The Msunduzi Municipality has numerous instruments at its disposal to ensure electricity is affordable at low volumes for poor families, but chooses not to use even one of them.

In 2012/13, when the municipality received R338 million through the Equitable Share, which is a national Treasury grant, to provide poor households with free basic services, it provided only 226 households on a credit meter with free basic electricity. Every one of the 68 179 households on prepaid meters was excluded. The municipality refuses to introduce inclining block tariffs (recommended by Nersa) to make low volumes of electricity affordable to poor families. No study is done to first check how much poor families can actually afford to pay.

The affordability crisis is now entrenched. Families unable to connect legally are being forced to connect illegally because there is no legal way to connect safely. People are dying through electrocutions. Families are taking food off the table to pay for electricity. Wood and paraffin fumes are making people sick. More homes and people are burning because candles fall. There is more conflict between communities. People are getting very hungry and very angry.

It is within the power of the Msunduzi Municipality to avert the crisis. It is also within our power. The municipality uses the bulk of the Equitable Share to give rates’ rebates to better-off households, not free and subsidised services to poor families. How does that make you feel? What are we going to do about it?

Are we going to lobby the municipality to use the Equitable Share in the way it was conceived? Are we going to force the municipality to bring equity into its tariffs so that the low volumes needed by poor families to secure a basic volume of electricity can be subsidised?

Can we pay our workers more? If we cannot afford to pay any more than we are already paying for services, are we prepared to be in solidarity with struggling households? How will we do this?

• Julie Smith is from the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (Pacsa).

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