Overcoming a culture of non-payment



A culture of non-payment for electrical services by community members is prevalent in South Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his recent State of the Nation address, said that this unwillingness to pay for services – which extends beyond electrical services – was a serious problem which the government will have to address urgently. Eskom’s chief financial officer, Calib Cassim, recently told Energize that municipalities and direct customers jointly owe the power utility R35-billion and that this figure grows by R0,5-billion every month.

Roger Lilley

The non-payment of services is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. During the apartheid era, the withholding of payments was used as a weapon against what was considered an illegitimate regime. With the dawn of the new democracy in 1994, such actions were expected to cease, but they did not. As part of its overall strategy to alleviate poverty, the South African government put in place a policy for the provision of a free basic level of municipal services which includes both water and electricity.

It appears that non-payment issues manifest in various ways. Firstly, there are those private individuals who simply cannot or will not pay for the services they receive, or to be more specific, for the electricity they have consumed. Then there are some municipalities which, having collected payment from at least some of the residents and businesses within their jurisdiction, fail to pass this money on to Eskom.

Studies have shown that, althouagh some municipalities raise and send bills to residents for the services supplied, the residents do not pay the bills. The reasons often cited for non-payment include ignorance, poverty and a simple unwillingness to pay for something they believe should be free. This so-called “entitlement culture” espouses the belief that water and electricity should be supplied to all citizens free of charge as a basic human right.

The South African Constitution states that municipalities are responsible to provide all citizens with services to satisfy their basic needs. Municipalities are expected to provide these services through their own resources: finance, equipment and personnel.

Municipalities have tried “strong arm” tactics to force residents to pay, but these have often resulted in civil unrest, especially among poorer people desperate for services they can no longer afford. Non-payment for services seems to have become an established “norm” in many areas, making the ongoing provision of services virtually impossible.

Eskom has tried, with the use of modern technology, to force residents in areas to which it supplies electricity directly, to pay for the energy they consume. Prepayment meters were installed at great cost, but these were vandalised or bypassed. Technical teams sent in to install or repair these meters, as well as electricians who try to disconnect defaulting residents, have been physically prevented from doing their work. Where electricity is not supplied, or the service is interrupted by the municipality or Eskom, power is stolen from other infrastructure such as streetlights, or from businesses or even directly from substations.

So, what can be done to overcome this social problem which now extends from electricity and water to toll-fees and TV licences? Since it has been seen that technology alone cannot provide the answer, it seems to me that the solution must be one of education.

The government should embark on a nation-wide programme of raising the awareness of the need – the importance – of people paying for the electricity they consume. People must understand that services cost money and that those who use the service must pay for it. They must accept that although the government can supply a certain level of service for free, each consumer must be prepared to pay for the amount which exceeds the free allowance. Goverment has the tools at its disposal to do this. Consider its massive AIDS awareness campaign and the preparations around the 2010 Soccer World Cup. These experiences can be used to educate the populace and address the scourge of non-payment for services. Government has been silent on this matter for too long.

The mayors and municipal managers of defaulting municipalities, which collect money from residents and businesses for electricity but fail to pass it on to Eskom, must be held personally accountable and take the responsibility for the failure because this amounts to fraud, even if the money is used for some other purpose within the municipality. Punishment, after prior warnings, and following the correct procedure, must be harsh so that others think twice before doing the same thing.

Send your comments to energize@ee.co.za

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