Soweto Shutdown: Residents protest power cuts and electricity costs

Operating under the banner of ‘Soweto Shutdown’, frustrated
community members have taken to the streets in protest against Eskom’s selective
power cut strategy which emanates from years of non-payment and sky-rocketing arrears.

The protest, which threatened to barricade roads in and
around Soweto, effectively shutting down South Africa’s most densely populated
region, got off to a slow start on Tuesday morning. Various law enforcement
agencies maintained a strong presence in the area, reporting sporadic
disruptions during the morning commute.

Soweto Shutdown takes
aim at Eskom

The Soweto Shutdown, which is expected to continue on Wednesday, when Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivers his 2020 Budget Speech, is in direct response to Eskom’s ‘heavy handed’ debt collecting measures. As South Africa’s energy crisis deepens and the utility’s operational capability shudders, Soweto’s debt to Eskom exceeds R18 billion; more than half of the national municipal bill still outstanding.

Soweto’s debt to Eskom, which has increased dramatically in recent years, has resulted in vicious protest action and public animosity, the latter resulting from the country’s dire load shedding predicament which emanates, primarily, from Eskom’s grim financial position.  

While public sentiment has turned bitter towards Soweto’s supposed preferential treatment, residents of the area argue that Eskom – and the African National Congress (ANC) government – betrayed original agreements undertaken during the dawn of democracy.

Non-payment for
services

Soweto ANC councillor Mpho Sesedinyane said that non-payment
during the apartheid area was seen as a form of resistance and that the same
ethos has been erroneously carried over into a democratic South Africa. President
Cyril Ramaphosa himself has commented on the unsustainable situation in Soweto,
saying:

 “If public utilities like Eskom are to survive, then all users need to pay for the services they receive.”

Despite fervent pleas, a large portion of Soweto still relies on illegal electrical connections – some of which are installed by corrupt Eskom employees. The utility’s push to install prepaid electricity meters has been met with fierce resistance, often culminating in intimidation and violence towards Eskom staff.

Eskom’s
debt-collection strategy met with fire

In the latter half of 2019, with Eskom running out of options to recoup its bellowing losses, an electricity disconnection program was implemented in Soweto. Eskom began disconnection households from the grid over non-payment. While the strategy was intended to be finely targeted, large sections of Soweto – even non-defaulters – have been rendered powerless.

Wholesale disconnections have left Soweto residents fuming.

Organiser of the Soweto Shutdown, and Johannesburg Housing
Crisis Committee member, Thami Hukwe said:

“We want the state to immediately respond to the demands that have been made by our communities for a very long time.”

Another protest organiser, Rufus Tsheke, said that he did
not support the barricading of roads and ‘general hooliganism’ but instead
urged residents to wear black clothing, form a human chain and stay away from
work.

Johannesburg Metro Police Spokesperson Wayne Minnaar has
confirmed that extra boots have been placed on the ground in anticipation of
unrest.

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