It might be in arrears, but Soweto is a victim of the Eskom crisis, not the cause

By Alex Lenferna

Community members gather in Soweto to plan the mass marches. Photo credit: Lebohang Phanyeko

Published in the Sunday Times on the 1st of March, 2020 here.

On the 25th and 26th of February, people of Soweto along with other low income communities across Gauteng protested against Eskom — South Africa’s beleaguered national energy utility. Among a number of issues, Sowetans are protesting getting cut off from electricity as a result of not paying the rates they owe to Eskom.

Many in the media are blaming Soweto for the Eskom crisis, claiming that their non-payment of electricity is driving the Eskom crisis. However, what many are missing is that Soweto’s non-payment is more a symptom of the Eskom crisis than the cause. With electricity prices having risen 400% over the last decade, it has become harder for poorer South Africans to afford electricity. That price increase has been caused predominantly by Eskom, not by Soweto.

If we want to see the biggest cause of debt in Eskom, we must look at coal. We have recently built two mega-coal power plants, Medupi and Kusile. Civil society protested against the plants, arguing they would be an economic and environmental disaster. They were right. Those already unreliable plants are producing some of the most expensive energy on earth and have been plagued by cost overruns and delays.

With their delays and overruns Medupi and Kusile have cost us about R400 billion and added R240 billion to Eskom’s debt. Without that R240 billion debt, Eskom would actually be pretty much in the black and have a sustainable level of debt, as Eskom’s own officials admit. We’re all paying the price of those projects, through their massive initial costs, expensive electricity, and the vast amounts of interest that needs to be paid to service the debt those projects accrued.

We can compare that R240 billion in debt to the supposed R18 billion in debt Soweto purportedly owes. If we examine the figures, then for small power users, i.e. residents, the debt is only R13,6 billion as of the end of 2019. What’s more, most of that debt was not unpaid electricity fees, but was rather interest on unpaid fees. If we take away that interest, which is arguably illegitimate, the amount is just R6,4 billion owed by everyday residents of Soweto.

While Soweto’s debt is still a considerable amount, it is a relatively small drop in the sea of costs caused by corruption, mismanagement, and white elephant coal power plants. To put Soweto’s non-payment further into perspective, we can also consider that Eskom corruptly signed onto R14-trillion in overpriced coal contracts in 2008, according to a Special Investigating Unit report. Yes, that’s trillion with a T, a number of orders of magnitude larger than Soweto’s non-payment.

Flyer with the demands of the Gauteng electricity protests

Our reliance on and mismanagement of coal is also the major driver behind load shedding. Our poorly maintained and aging coal fleet needs to be replaced. The most cost-effective, job-creating, and environmentally sound way of doing that is with renewable energy. Energy justice activists in Soweto have long been calling for a transition to renewable energy, as they are once again doing during the current protests.

However, the ANC government is set on locking us into more expensive, economically and ecologically disastrous coal, nuclear, and gas. Even though the ANC’s own economic modelling showed renewables to be better, they uneconomically forced new coal, gas and nuclear into the Integrated Resource Plan, rather than embracing a just transition to renewable energy.

So, my fellow South Africans, we are understandably angry about the Eskom crisis we are in. However, let us be careful about turning our anger onto the people of Soweto. Let us turn it to the corruption and mismanagement that is most responsible. Let us turn our anger to the building of coal plants which are not only plunging us deep into hundreds of billions in debt, but are also driving the climate crisis and causing vast amounts of deadly air and water pollution.

To quote Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

So, yes, we must fix the Eskom crisis we are in. However, disproportionately scapegoating Eskom helps serve the interests of those truly behind this crisis. It deflects from their responsibility for the absolutely disastrous situation they have created for you, for me, and for the people of Soweto too. It’s long past time we held Eskom accountable and unlocked a just transition to more affordable renewable energy.

Alex Lenferna is Fulbright and Mandela Rhodes Scholar who holds a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington and serves as a climate justice campaigner for 350Africa.org

Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition & campaigner with 350Africa.org. He has a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington.