Community group demands free basic electricity

Protests in Imbali Township in June last year where the complaint of residents was the high cost of prepaid electricity. Photo by Elitsha reporters

Community activists have taken the Msunduzi Municipality to court for not providing free basic electricity to the residents.

Msunduzi Municipality, South Africa

Electricity Action Group (EAG) activists have accused Msunduzi Municipality of stalling on its commitment to rollout free basic electricity to poor households in Pietermaritzburg. For the second time in six months, the community group took the municipality to the Pietermaritzburg High Court recently over the municipality’s failure to provide electricity.

While EAG members were hoping that the court would take a sterner stance and issue a tough fine, the municipality was instead granted a chance to present its case on a date yet to be determined as to why they failed to provide electricity as per its undertaking last year. According to the community group, last week’s development amounted to a slap on the wrist for the municipality that has consistently failed poor people.

Formed in 2010 EAG has been involved in a series of engagements, including run-ins with municipal authorities.

The organisation was borne out of concerns from poor households and communities that along with other commodities electricity had become too costly. At the initial stage, those leading the process were mainly women who explained that they were battling to run households as food prices were spiralling and costly electricity was more than they could deal with. The complaints came mainly from townships and former coloured and Indian suburbs, prompting the formation of the organisation.

Gradually, young people also became part of the movement and Bongumusa Sibisi from Sobantu township was one such young person that was drawn to and became part of EAG.

He questions the political will of the current administration to provide free basic services to poor communities. “We have explored many avenues including countless meetings and negotiations with the administrative and political leadership of Msunduzi but that has not borne any fruits, so we will look at applying a more intense strategy which will include protest action,” said Sibisi.

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He insists that when communities embark on protest action the authorities take note and responds to community pleas, citing an instance in Sobantu last year when communities blocked roads with burning tyres over the lack of services.

Sibisi dismisses suggestions that EAG members do not want to pay for services rendered by the municipality, but maintains that there should be due consideration of the harsh economic conditions under which they live. Part of the solution proposed by EAG is a flat rate charge for water and electricity, which he said would provide steady revenue for the municipality but also ensure that poor and vulnerable families and communities are protected.

“Our membership consists of grannies who look after their grandchildren, take care of households. Most of them rely on social grants and unless something is done to consider their conditions the situation will deteriorate,” says Sibisi. Some of the problems associated with high electricity costs is the high rate of illegal connections which can have deadly outcomes as has been the case at Jika Joe, one of the local informal settlements in Pietermaritzburg.

Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Awareness (Pacsa) also agrees that the municipality has failed poor people in Pietermaritzburg. Pacsa researcher Julie Smith says there are sufficient resources in the form of the funding the municipality receives from national government to cushion poor communities.  “We know that the municipality gets money through the equitable share amounting to millions of rands each year, and we believe that the money should be used to provide basic electricity to poor families,” said Smith.

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According to the EAG the flat rate would guarantee municipality an income each month, cushion the poor, but also ensure the overall safety of residents who would not be forced to hazard connecting illegally.

The municipality could not get back to us before the publication of the story.

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