Eskom scapegoating Soweto for its colossal failures

Eskom representatives blamed nonpaying Soweto residents for Eskom's financial woes.
Eskom representatives blamed nonpaying Soweto residents for Eskom's financial woes.
Image: Eskom

In what seems like a calculated move to deflect blame for its financial ruin, last week Eskom released figures on how much Soweto owed in unpaid electricity fees.

Then Eskom representatives took to the media to blame the residents of Soweto for the crisis Eskom is in.

Last week Eskom received yet another bailout from the Treasury to the tune of R59bn. Realising this was not going to be enough to stave off financial ruin, Eskom announced it will take national energy regulator Nersa to court so it can hike electricity rates even more.

Eskom's actions are those of a company in desperate financial straits, that is trying to squeeze the tax and ratepayer as much as it can to try and stay afloat. With news breaking this week as Eskom announced record losses, it's clear the firm is in dire financial straits.

In an interview on Power FM, two Eskom representatives blamed unpaying Soweto residents for Eskom's financial woes. Its former general manager in Gauteng, Bandile Jack, said the people of Soweto are "killing the country".

The people of Soweto's nonpayment is not comparable to Eskom's mismanagement in either scale or nature. Consider that they owe R18bn in arrears - about half of the national debt from defaulting municipalities.

While that might sound like a lot, compare it to the disastrous R100bn cost over-run of just one of Eskom's coal power plants, Medupi. Or consider that Eskom signed off on R14-trillion in overpriced coal contracts in 2008, according to a recent Special Investigating Unit report.

Eskom's mismanagement and corrupt dealings were also done primarily to benefit wealthy and corrupt politicians, mining bosses and connected individuals like the Guptas.

Meanwhile, Soweto residents' nonpayment was predominantly a result of poor people not being able to afford bloated electricity prices. The two are clearly not morally comparable.

The reason poor people cannot afford electricity in the first place is because of Eskom's mismanagement and polluting and expensive coal power. In just a decade, electricity prices went up by a shocking 540% making it incredibly hard for SA's poor to afford electricity.

While much of the world is seeing a revolution of cheaper energy powered by rapid advances in renewable energy, Eskom's mismanagement and corrupted coal dealings have seen electricity prices soar in SA.

The citizens of Soweto are not the only ones struggling to pay for Eskom's mess. According to Mail & Guardian business editor Kevin Davie, the R105bn bailout Eskom will receive over the next two years means "we now pay twice for electricity: once through the tariff and again when we pay our taxes".

Communities are also paying in the water and air pollution coal power creates, and in the devastating climate impacts it is driving which has made SA 10-20% poorer according to recent studies.

Many South Africans see past Eskom's spin. The blame for its ruinous state lies squarely at the utility and the politicians overseeing it. SA deserves and needs better leadership to ensure access to clean, reliable and affordable energy for all.

People across SA will be taking to the streets next month for a just transition to a more affordable renewable energy future as part of a Global Climate Strike to demand action on climate change.

*Lenferna is a Fulbright and Mandela Rhodes Scholar who serves as a climate justice campaigner for 350Africa.org

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