You don’t normally get electrocuted in showers, but you can in Johannesburg

A young Muslim couple were buried on Monday. Zaheer Sarang and Nabeelah Khan were found dead in the shower of the cottage they lived in on his parents’ property. They’d been electrocuted in the shower. You don’t normally get electrocuted in showers, not even in horror movies. But you can in Johannesburg. 

Last weekend my daughter was, thankfully not fatally.

In the Sarang and Khan case, there had been illegal connections in the west of Joburg where they live. The strain on the network made their taps go live, something Sarang’s father Yusuf had contacted the municipality to complain about.

Now there’s an inquest.

On Saturday, in the north of Johannesburg where I live, there was a water outage, the umpteenth in as many days. When Joburg Water came to investigate, someone apparently dug into an electric cable. The power wasn’t cut, but it began to surge. A (private) electrician described it to me thus, the live wire arcs as it touches the other wires. The power is erratic; stable, weak and fierce.

We didn’t know. 

What we did know was the ceiling lights dimmed, the gate motor didn’t have enough oomph to do its job, the microwave turned slowly but didn’t heat what was placed inside it. Then all of a sudden, the power returned with a vengeance, everything burned brightly and in the shower; the taps suddenly went live.

Nobody knows until it happens to you. 

Even when it does, you don’t think it’s the council – because it sounds so illogical that your house, the place where you feel safe could actually be a death trap. Life’s not supposed to work like that.

The City of Johannesburg didn’t exactly cover itself with glory. Joburg Water had so many outages in our suburb and surrounds – and power outages at pump stations – to contend with that it took two days to eventually resolve and restore the water supply.

At City Power, the complaint had to be logged twice. The first time, notwithstanding widespread coverage of the Crosby tragedy, the complaint was closed off late on Monday night by a team that was on site but couldn’t be bothered to do anything after they discovered that problem was now in Randburg, but they’d been dispatched from the Johannesburg depot.

The second attempt was successful: because by then I had one of the city’s most energetic ward councillors on my side. Even then it took an entire day and a night to resolve. There won’t be an inquest on our side, because we didn’t lose anyone – but it could have been very different, just ask the Sarang and Khan families.

We have a problem in Johannesburg; crumbling infrastructure, a non-existent fire brigade, but perhaps the biggest crisis is a lack of leadership. This is the richest city not just in the country, but on the continent, in terms of people and resources. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be a standard bearer for Africa. 

We’ve got an opportunity later this year to start that process. We only have ourselves to blame if we squander it.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 19 June 2021.