Pietermaritzburg’s small businesses fear a total city blackout

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Andre Abrahams needs a generator to keep his Thina Sonke metalwork business limping along, but big welding jobs need machinery that cannot be run by a generator.
Andre Abrahams needs a generator to keep his Thina Sonke metalwork business limping along, but big welding jobs need machinery that cannot be run by a generator.
Moeketsi Mamane

There are mounting fears that Msunduzi could face a massive blackout if the municipality does not urgently deal with the persistent outages that have severely compromised its network.

The City’s electricity woes are also strangling the local economy and some businesses are even considering leaving Pietermaritzburg for towns with a more stable power supply.

While the outages have been blamed on the ageing infrastructure that has not been maintained due to poor budgeting processes, illegal connections, lack of resources in the electricity department and the recent hailstorm, there are also allegations of sabotage by those with inside knowledge of the cables and substations.

Both the formal and informal sector have been severely affected by the outages, including businesses such as the structural steel and metalwork company Thina Sonke in Woodlands. The company has not had proper electricity supply since the beginning of November but the owner, Andre Abrahams, said the problem dated a few months back where they were sometimes left without power for two or three days at a time.

It stemmed from the illegal connections on the neighbouring transformer, done by residents of the Emalala­hleni informal settlement near the Northway Mall.

“The root cause for all of this is the ANC councillors that are voting for a budget that’s not sufficient for service delivery and infrastructure maintenance — that’s where the buck stops.”
Hilton ward councillor Craig Millar.

“We use three phase power because we have machines that use three-phase [high-voltage/industrial] power. One of those phases has been down since November 7 and we reported it to the municipality but all they did was to come and disconnect the illegal connections and didn’t restore the third phase,” said Abrahams.

He said they had not been able to do large-scale welding since November 7 and they were behind on their deadlines so they could not even invoice their clients.

“This is a critical time because soon everyone is going to shut down for December and our staff need to go home with their year-end packages as well.”

Thina Sonke lost three months of work during lockdown and the outages have cost them another one.

Abrahams said he had to put some of his 20 workers off because they could not do any welding without electricity. The small-scale work is also costing him thousands of rands in fuel for generators.

“It’s simply not sustainable so I’m now considering my options because I cannot work in this environment. I have rent, insurance and salaries to pay but I also did not budget for petrol for the generators so that’s coming out of my own pocket.”

What was most frustrating, Abrahams said, was that Msunduzi was still billing him for electricity even though the supply he was receiving was not adequate.

“That’s what you get when the people who are making decisions don’t care. They didn’t suffer any losses during lockdown because they were still getting paid, but as things stand most companies are already barely breaking even because the economy is in such a bad state.”

He said the electricity problem was going to push many businesses to cut hours or jobs and that would devastate the poorest of the poor.

Pietermaritzburg panel beater and mechanic small business owner Themba Khumalo said he had many clients who expected their cars to be ready before the start of the festive season but he did not know if he could meet those deadlines.

“Us small businesses don’t have money for generators so we simply can’t work if there’s no electricity. We also have obligations to our employees because we know they live from hand to mouth so if we don’t work, their families might starve,” said Khumalo.

Khumalo said his team might be small, as there are only five of them, but it still created employment for those few people.

Cars waiting for repairs at Themba Khumalo’s TandZ
Cars waiting for repairs at Themba Khumalo’s TandZ mechanic and panel beating workshop.

Northdale informal trader Gift Ndlovu lost one month’s stock of fish and Russian sausages worth R2 500 during the recent outage that lasted several days. She was indecisive about whether to tap into her meagre savings and restock or wait until the power supply stabilised.

“What if I go buy today and then we don’t have electricity for another three days? I’m also losing a lot of money because a lot of customers want to buy fish and chips or hotdogs when there’s no electricity in the area.”

The mother-of-three said people like her — foreign nationals — were powerless and could not take on the municipality even when they were wronged. She said she would not even bother with claiming for her stock because she was previously denied a municipal vendor’s permit because of her immigrant status.

RESIDENTS’ FRUSTRATIONS

Meanwhile tensions are running high across the city with frustrated residents inconvenienced by the outages and Msunduzi’s lack of communication.

Some allege that they could not get through to the call centre to get the required reference numbers, and others could not get updates on their queries when they phoned the following day.

“It’s absolutely appalling what is happening and how quickly it is deteriorating with no sign of improvement and no communication,” said Boughton resident Sheila Breedt.

Raeesa Hattia, who lives in the CBD, said what was most annoying was that there seem to be no permanent solution to the electricity problem yet the ratepayers were still expected to pay their municipal bills monthly.

ALSO READ | Kwadukuza municipality acts against electricity theft.

“The food in our fridges and freezers is going bad, and where does that leave us? We are working class people and survive on those, we can’t just afford to go buy anytime — we budget and work on that.”

Cindy Pakker said the Village residents had power outages at least twice a week.

“We are currently out of power from Monday night and cannot be told when it will be back on. As a result we are left with our groceries going bad.

“Municipality manager, deputy mayor and the mayor are well aware of our situation yet it seems to be falling on deaf ears,” she said yesterday.

The residents also feared that the city’s network would collapse and plunge the entire Msunduzi into darkness.

“We seem to be on crisis mode but we are also not managing that crisis very well because there’s no communication about what’s really going on. We get fed different stories every day and now they are blaming the storm. I honestly won’t be surprised if they say lights out for everyone and only leave the hospitals on one of these days,” said Bongekile Khumalo.

COUNCILLORS

Most ward councillors have had to bear the brunt for Msunduzi’s service delivery failures as residents often take their frustrations out on them when the City’s workers do not respond to their queries.

Among them is Hilton’s Craig Millar, whose ward was put on load reduction this week without any prior warning. This came after the area was reportedly affected by a cable fault.

“The root cause for all of this is the ANC councillors that are voting for a budget that’s not sufficient for service delivery and infrastructure maintenance — that’s where the buck stops. This should be a priority for the municipality but it’s obviously not for the ANC.”

He said he felt bad for the employees in the electricity department who were expected to ensure that the service was provided to not just Msunduzi’s 39 wards, but also some areas in uMngeni, without the resources. He said also they also had to work with call centre “which is an absolute joke” and continuously fails to ensure proper communication.

“It’s quite obvious to me that as a supply area that doesn’t vote in Msunduzi, we [Hilton] get treated like the poor relative. We only get some [service] when they can afford some but that doesn’t do anything for the local economy. How are businesses supposed to operate in increasingly hostile environmental conditions?”

He said the load reduction that was implemented on Tuesday seemed to be a knee jerk reaction rather than something planned because the schedule was never even published so the ratepayers did not know when they would have lights and for how long.

The ANC would be punished at the polls because residents would not continue giving their votes to an organisation that did not prioritise service delivery, he said.

Councillor Ross Strachan, who has been raising the issue of the lack of infrastructure maintenance for several years, said the problem had reached crisis stage.

He also feared that a massive blackout was imminent because the network was already teetering and there seemed to be no plan to urgently address this.

“We are going to have a week where we are going to have no electricity for a lengthy period of time because everything is going to fail. It’s going to cripple businesses and the entire city if we carry on the direction we are going.”

He also blamed the political instability within the ANC for Msunduzi’s woes, saying the factions were pulling in different directions leaving the ratepayers and residents to suffer the consequences.

SABOTAGE

Meanwhile, sources in Msunduzi alleged sabotage of the infrastructure by contractors who are benefiting from the electricity department’s high vacancy rate and lack of resources.

They said of late even high voltage cables were being dug up and stolen while substations were being vandalised at an unprecedented rate. This had substantially increased the number of faults reported.

“The only people who stand to benefit from this are contractors because they know that the municipality is going to call them for help because we are so understaffed,” said one source.

ALSO READ | Thieves risked their lives to crawl through tunnel into substation and strip it.

The municipality should engage police intelligence to investigate the vandalism and theft of its infrastructure, he said.

On the ageing infrastructure, another source said there was a maintenance plan that was formulated by the electricity department and submitted to council, but there was no funding allocated for implementation.

“It all boils down to improper budgeting because as things stands we don’t even have enough spares. Some things are only ordered once there’s been a fault reported and it sometimes take days for the deliveries to come.”

He said the internal procurement red tape sometimes resulted in Msunduzi asking contractors to buy the equipment even though the latter put a mark-up to make profit.

MSUNDUZI

City spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said the municipality is currently busy sourcing funding for infrastructure upgrades and this was shared with the business sector yesterday.

“The economic impact of the outages is obviously a huge concern for the municipality because we don’t want to see businesses shutting down because of electricity issues.”

She said at yesterday’s meeting with industry representatives Msunduzi also appealed for their intervention in tracing those who buy stolen cables and electricity equipment from the vandals.

On the communications, she said regular updates were posted on Msunduzi’s social media pages and ward councillors also shared these with their residents.

“We are also appealing to the people of Msunduzi not to turn a blind eye to illegal connections and vandalism of our electricity infrastructure because those are amongst the biggest contributors to the outages.

“The costs of the damages that are caused by the overloading of transformers and vandalism is already running into millions of rands and we will soon share those figures with the public so that they can see the extent of the problem,” Mafumbatha said.

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