Those in power choose to remain powerless to lift SA from poverty

The mayor of one of South Africa’s biggest metros joined a march by the residents of one of Eskom’s biggest defaulters – against the cash-strapped power utility this week.

Soweto owes Eskom as much as R18-billion. Those who went on the protest – after the planned shutdown picket did not materialise – complain that the electricity prices are too high and that the power keeps getting cut off, outside of the load shedding times.

Well yes.

The problem is the subtext that is missing.

Many Soweto residents haven’t paid for electricity since the days of the Struggle when it was recognised as a legitimate tactic to bring the apartheid regime to its knees. But that was 26 years ago. The elephant in the room is that there’s a huge difference between those who literally can’t afford it and those who just won’t pay for it – but will burn down substations and intimidate government into continuing to let them illegally reconnect and draw power for free.

Makhubo told journalists that residents wanted to pay for electricity “going forward”, freeze the existing debt and “find mechanisms “to pay it off. The problem is that Eskom’s written off the debt twice. It also ignores the fact that Eskom actually has an indigent policy in place.

We have a huge poverty problem in this country, exacerbated by spiralling unemployment, a third of the country drawing state grants and a moribund economy. Someone somewhere has to pay for the running of the state, the SOEs, the grants and the public service salaries, but those who can are becoming less and less.

No one in government seems willing to grasp this nettle – or the fact that state capture, rank mismanagement and corporate collusion are an unsustainable drain on what we do have.

That’s why you can have the ruling party protesting against the government formed from its own members. That’s why you can have people like Secretary General Ace Magashule speaking about corruption when he’s apparently central to some of the worst cases in this country, with his loyal lieutenant Carl Niehaus lecturing members about how the ANC is failing its members despite his own record of fake burying his parents to borrow money that he never paid back.

The ANC has become such a broad church, it’s now cognitively dissonant. What South Africa needs is proper leadership, what we get instead is politicians perpetually pandering to populist expediency.

In the meantime, there’s no money left to keep the SOEs running, much less subsidise them for those who simply don’t want to pay, whether it’s electricity in Soweto or SAA flights for MPs and ministers. We need to bring back accountability. Wrongdoers need to be prosecuted for a start, and office bearers need to be paid what the fiscus can actually afford.

In the case of Mayor Geoff Makhubo, we could link his salary to his ratepayers. If half of them don’t pay, his salary gets cut proportionately.

Maybe that’ll make him think twice before he picks up a placard to toyi-toyi next time.

Originally published on 29 February 2020 in the Saturday Star