Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

South Africa crisis creates crusading electricians

 Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee electricians Levy and Walter in Soweto
Heroes or snakes? Electricians Levy and Walter believe power should be free

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.

Sowetan resident Christine Sonile
Christine Sonile owed thousands of rand when she was cut off

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.

Maboe Maphaka from South Africa power firm Eskom
Anybody who is putting people's lives at risk we don't see as heroes - we see them as destructors
Maboe Maphaka

"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.

 Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee electrician Levy, in Soweto
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 haphazardly.

"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 Eskom.

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 battle.

"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 us backward."

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 than that.

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 Levy.

"The granny got back her better life and her dignity. I'm not afraid to connect - anytime, anywhere."

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