South Africa: Township Residents Without Power for Three Years

Beleaguered residents of Palm Springs in the Emfuleni local municipality in Gauteng have been living without electricity and with sewage running in the streets.

"I've had enough," says Thandiwe Sibuyane, 71, who lives in Palm Springs, south of Gauteng, in section J. Her house, along with 66 others, has been without electricity since mid-2019. "The way we've suffered in these years is like 400 years," she says.

Sibuyane suffers from hypertension, sugar diabetes and arthritis. She says living without electricity has worsened her health. For instance, her diabetes syringes must be kept in the fridge. "I was forced to tell the clinic to stop giving me sugar diabetes medication that stays in the fridge, because where will I put it?"

It is 11am on a sunny day, but Sibuyane's sitting room is chilly. "We survive in the sun like lizards," Sibuyane says. "Ngifaka bogum'gedlela bamasokisi because angizenzi (I am wearing long, thick socks simply because I have no other choice). I am extremely cold."

She says the severity of the cold makes it hard to sleep. It takes her and her husband "three to four hours" to get warm before bed, Sibuyane says. Mmasechaba Mzizi, 76, who lives about 200m from Sibuyane, echoes her sentiments that the lack of electricity has turned their lives upside down.

"Our life is difficult and painful. I've had enough of this place. When we came here, we loved this place," says Mzizi, who also suffers from arthritis. "If you want to dress up, you'd find that your clothes are cold as if they've been poured with water."

Mzizi complains of the difficulty of performing chores such as laundry. "Eh, eh, eh, eh, the water is super cold and when I do my laundry the time is usually around 2.30pm to 3pm. I can't recall the last time I ironed my clothes," she says.

It is not only the lack of electricity that is the issue. Many residents also complain of poor service. "I thought this will be a place I will live happily," Mzizi says. "Our sewerage has been running in the street since last year. It stinks a lot."

Failing infrastructure

Elizabeth Kwadimane, 73, knows too well the stench Mzizi mentioned. Sewage runs non-stop outside her house, she says. "The municipality hasn't done anything. I can't even open my windows. When it's summertime, you'd see the flies in the passage."

For Kwadimane, emotions overtake what words cannot express. "Our government would keep asking us to vote for them and then they forget about us just like they did for these past years."

Palm Springs is one of the many townships under the jurisdiction of the financially embattled Emfuleni local municipality, which has been under administration since 2018, following a R1 billion irregular expenditure bill. Last year, the municipality owed about R4.7 billion to creditors, with most owed to Eskom and Rand Water.

The municipality's acting communications manager, Makhosonke Sangweni, says there are compounding reasons the municipality failed to fulfil its duties. "One of these factors revolves around incompetency," says Sangweni. "There are people who don't care about rendering services to the public. There are allegations of crime and corruption, but no one has been arrested as of yet. But if you use the balance of probability in law, you can see kunesandla semfene (elements of maliciousness)."

The community says the last time Metsi a Lekoa - the water and sanitation department of the Emfuleni municipality - came to attend to sewage spills was in January.

"I find that problematic because you can't tell me that for six months there's never been water and sewage spillages," says Sangweni. "[These are] matters I will raise with the municipality manager that there is an attitude of aloofness with Metsi a Lekoa [and] it means [it has] neglected the community."

Sangweni emphasised the need for the municipality and Rand Water to work together. "Our staff must continue to support, help and guide where necessary," Sangweni says. "[They] have experience, and they know the challenges facing the communities."

Limited sustainable alternatives

"Other [communities] have not had electricity for the past five years ... But the main problem is that people are connecting illegally and that's why their transformers explode," Sangweni says.

An enquiry was sent on 9 June to Eskom in Palm Springs about what caused the transformer to break, why it has taken so long to attend to the problem and when the entity plans to restore power. Eskom's area manager in Palm Springs, Yenthusheko Mashila, says its staff is "on the ground working".

About 45 community members went to Eskom Megawatt Park in Sunninghill on 13 June to submit their demands. Eskom is working on the issue, they were told, and the community was urged to give the power utility until the end of the month.

But what is clear is that the township has become a place where sustainable alternatives are limited for people such as Mzizi, Sibuyane and other residents. The affected houses will continue to bear the brunt of mounting costs of not having electricity.

"Gas is too expensive. Paraffin is too expensive," says Sibuyane, who pays R280 for 9kg of gas, which lasts her only half the month before she needs to top up. She spends another R500 on coal. These amounts don't include the paraffin needed for lights.

"As pensioners, how will we buy food? What is R1 800 for pension grant money? All of these things need to be covered by our pension grant. Right now, I am regretting why I dared to come stay in Palm Springs."

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