*South Africa crisis creates crusading electricians *
By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Johannesburg
*Nobody enjoys paying the bills, but in the townships of South Africa it
has become an increasingly optional activity. *
In Soweto more than half of the residents now get their power for free.
They are helped in part by the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee
(SECC) - a group of electricians who believe it is the people's right to
have free power. They reconnect about 40 houses every week.
Two of the crusading electricians - Walter and Levy, who do not want
their full names revealed - have just been dispatched from their cramped
office to help an elderly widow who had been cut off five days before.
When they arrive, 78-year-old Christine Sonile takes her time emerging
from a darkened bedroom.
"On Friday I was having a nap in the afternoon when there was a knock on
the door. The next thing I knew I was disconnected," she says.
She has to support three grandchildren on a monthly pension payment of
1,000 rand ($130 or £80).
Her face creased with both worry and old age, Ms Sonile explains that
each month she paid the electricity company 100 rand.
One look at her bill shows it was not nearly enough.
Accumulated over 20 years her balance is a staggering 66,000 rand.
*A blind eye? *
It has clearly been a painful few days without power.
"My granny needs electricity to cook, to wash, and to make a cup of tea
- she likes tea," says granddaughter Lily.
“ *Anybody who is putting people's lives at risk we don't see as heroes
- we see them as destructors *”
Maboe Maphaka Eskom
"My granny's too old, she can't live without electricity."
But thanks to Walter and Levy, the lights will soon be back on.
In the street outside Ms Sonile's house they remove the cover of the
electricity distribution box and install a new circuit breaker.
This is no botched job. The SECC pride themselves on maintaining safety
standards at least as good as the power company.
"We are fighting for what the government said in 1994 [the first
democratic elections]," Levy says as he fiddles with his pliers.
"People shall have all the resources free of charge. Water, electricity,
schooling and health. After we have voted for them they have changed.
It's not illegal."
There's certainly no fear of getting caught.
Walter says he has been arrested seven times but never charged. Levy
makes a point of taking his sweater off in the street so that the camera
can see his red SECC branded T-shirt. As they work a police car cruises
by, has a look, toots his horn and then drives off.
"Many of the officers have been reconnected by us as well," Levy says
with a smile.
*'Moving backwards' *
With Ms Sonile happily making her first cup of tea in days, the two
electricians head back to SECC headquarters.
“ *We are giving back what belongs to the people *”
On the way they stop at another distribution box. This one has been
wrenched open at the back and there are about 15 wires emerging
"These are illegal and dangerous connections - what if a child walked
past here?" says Levy.
He displays how the live wires are threaded along the railway track,
under a road bridge and up to power a hostel on the other side of the dip.
Such is the culture of non-payment in Soweto that it is estimated that
60% of people here do not pay anything.
Responsibility for clearing up the mess falls on the state power firm
Its strategy so far has been to try to stigmatise those who steal
electricity as anti-social.
A series of dark and brooding TV adverts depict those who connect
illegally as "izinyoka" - or snakes. But it has so far been a losing
"Anybody who is putting people's lives at risk we don't see as heroes -
we see them as destructors," say Eskom's Maboe Maphaka.
"People must move away from these processes as they're actually taking
*Price hikes *
And Eskom is already far behind. Nationally it is estimated that 6% of
Eskom's electricity is stolen. But the company's problems run far deeper
At the top, both its chairman and chief executive have resigned after a
racially-charged power struggle.
Operationally, things are no better. A decade of underinvestment has
left South Africa desperately short of generating capacity.
In a bid to raise the funds for new power stations prices are being
hiked repeatedly - this year by a third.
But the worst is still to come.
If you are one of the minority in Soweto who chooses to pay a bill and
stay legal, your "reward" will be a 45% increase in your tariff for each
of the next three years.
As people struggle to pay, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee is
likely to get busier and busier.
"We are giving back what belongs to the people. It's not a luxury," says
"The granny got back her better life and her dignity. I'm not afraid to
connect - anytime, anywhere."
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