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Mpumalanga residents head to court to halt 20-hours-a-day power cuts

Daily outages threaten businesses and the health of residents.
The municipality has a long history of service delivery dereliction. Image: Govan Mbeki Municipality's Facebook page

A residents association in the farming town of Bethal in Mpumalanga has dragged the local Govan Mbeki Municipality (GMM) and Eskom to court, claiming that power cuts of up to 20 hours a day are threatening the livelihoods and health of residents.

This is not the first time residents have taken a local municipality to court for service delivery failure, but what is unique about this case is that the applicant – the Bethal & eMzinoni Community for Services Association – is asking the court for a “structural interdict” that would force the municipality to settle its roughly R1.18 billion debt to Eskom and subject itself to court supervision to prevent or limit further power cuts.

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The other respondents in the case are the Gert Sibande Municipality (under which GMM falls), the municipal managers at GMM and Gert Sibande Municipality, and the provincial and national ministers for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

The case was heard earlier this month in the Mpumalanga High Court.

Extent of collapse

Deposing for the residents’ association, Bethal businessman and resident Yusuf Carrim lays out the extent of the municipality’s financial and operational collapse: power outages of between four and 20 hours a day commenced in December 2019, and have increased in frequency and duration since March 2020.

The affected areas are the towns of Bethal, eMzinoni and Milan Park, all of which fall under GMM.

The association is asking the court to force the municipal respondents and Eskom to come to a repayment agreement for the roughly R1.18 billion owed to the electricity utility, and “to comply with their respective constitutional and statutory duties and to forthwith render the uninterrupted basic service of electricity to all those living and working within the Greater Bethal area who are willing and able to pay for it”.

The residents association was formed in June 2020 to address residents’ concerns over lack of service delivery by the municipality. It has more than 100 members and some 7 000 supporters drawn from all segments of the local communities.

After exhausting all possible remedies with the local municipality, the association raised more than R300 000 to take the matter to court.

Power supply isn’t the only issue

It’s not just daily power cuts that have outraged local residents. GMM has a long history of service delivery dereliction, from water cuts to unrepaired roads and broken garbage trucks.

Read: Is this the future of small town South Africa?

Local entrepreneurs have stepped in to provide the services the municipality is supposed to, from collection of rubbish to water supply.

The situation became so dire that the province was forced to step in with a recovery plan in 2019, though it is clear, says Carrim, that this had little material impact on the provision of basic services in GMM.

Eskom agreement

In 2019, the municipality and Eskom had agreed on what is known as a Notified Maximum Demand (NMD) system, whereby Eskom would implement “partial rotational load shedding” in the areas of Bethal, eMzinoni, Kinross and Evander.

Eskom is entitled to reduce or terminate the supply of electricity where a municipality contravenes payment conditions previously agreed, or fails to honour or to enter into an agreement for the supply of electricity under the Electricity Regulation Act.

The daily power outages are imposed on local businesses and residents without warning, and are unpredictable in timing and duration.

This is quite separate from national load shedding by Eskom which takes place at prescribed times.

Residents who can afford it have purchased generators to ensure they have sufficient power supply for the preparation of food, bathing and, for businesses, essential services such as wifi and power for computers.

Read: Eskom gets tough with errant municipalities, grabs cash and land

Carrim’s affidavit spells out how the power outages impact life for local residents:

  • The local high school is unable to function properly and cannot afford a generator to keep its computers running during power outages;
  • There are 68 residents in a frail care home that need uninterrupted power for lights, heating and electronic medical equipment;
  • A local grocery store had to shut down for a period due to damage to equipment caused by power outages; and
  • Other businesses likewise report damage to equipment caused by sudden power cuts, which in one case cost R75 000 to repair.

“Our argument is that the residents are dutifully paying their electricity bills to the municipality, but the municipality is not paying Eskom, so the power cuts that are imposed by Eskom prejudice law-abiding residents,” says Waseem Gani, attorney with MacRobert Attorneys, who is representing the association.

“This cannot be allowed to continue and we want to court to issue a structural interdict which will force the municipality to reach a settlement with Eskom over the arrears owed, and supervise the adherence to that settlement.

Acting municipal manager disputes residents’ claims

In response, Elizabeth Tshabalala, acting municipal manager at GMM, denies the residents association’s reasons for the power cuts, and says the municipality disputes the amount allegedly owed to Eskom, and that the matter was referred to arbitration.

She also denies the power interruptions at Bethal are as a result of the historic debt to Eskom, and argues that the decision to implement load shedding is a temporary measure until such time as the arbitration with Eskom is complete.

Some of Tshabalala’s affidavit is unintelligible – for example: “The First Respondent (GMM) hold meetings quality with the member of the communities)” – so one wonders how the judge will make sense of this.

The response from the Gert Sibande Municipality also appears to contain some basic errors, such as getting the name of the municipal manager wrong.

Its affidavit is signed by a CA Habini, described as an adult male, when the municipal manager’s name is CA Habile.

“It is of serious concern that the deponent would sign, and … the respondents deliver, an affidavit in which the apparent municipal manager has his surname given completely incorrectly, and his position within [the municipality] has not been described,” deposes Carrim.

Judgment in the case has been reserved.

A case to watch

Residents of other municipalities subject to similar power outages will be watching this case with interest with a view to potentially launching cases of their own.

“The allegations of [Bethal] residents, if true, represent a shocking case of indifference by GMM officials to the plight of residents who dutifully continue to pay their municipal dues,” says Tim Tyrrell, project manager at the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa).

“It is appalling that there appear to be no consequences for officials who have clearly failed in their duty to deliver basic and constitutionally-mandated services.”

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It doesn’t matter what political party is in power in a municipality. It is the officials, the people at the depots and their bosses that are not maintaining infrastructure. It is also officials that must see that financial systems and procurement systems are in place and adhered to.

The whole workforce in these municipalities are incompetent and dysfunctional.

I have a friend who provides training services to government officials. He can tell you stories that somebody living in the First World won’t believe, but which will surprise nobody in SA. True story: he went to a government office in Mpumalanga a few weeks ago to provide training, only to find nobody of the more than 100 people who (are supposed to) work at the office allegedly has a pen, so you can’t fill in the form at the gate for Security. A place where all their PCs and printers got stolen due to an alleged break-in. Repeatedly. When the taxpayer buys them new computers and printers, they don’t have any paper to print on. Not one piece of mechanical equipment that they need to do their job, is working. They have no materials or spares with which to do their work. Of the 100 people he was supposed to train, a full 8 were at the office on an ordinary working day.

Again; this is not unusual or exceptional – this is the public-alleged-“service.”

So much for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Mr Ramaparra.

It is covid times. You do not share pens. How does it reflect on your ‘professional friend’ that he arrived with out a pen? Unprepared tenderpreneur?

@Bloemfontein Big Time ANC Shill – my friend does training. So he needs his trainees to fill in the attendance register. Complete tests. Etc. So even if he has his own pen, this won’t help when he’s supposed to train 100 people. And ever heard of Powerpoint.

Again: Lootfreely House is not getting such good value from you. But hey, pay peanuts, get…….

@bloemfontein big time, your grammar is atrocious. Use “without” instead of “with out”. If you know the difference. Which I doubt.

Nice try. Still not voting for the ANC.

Why not? ANC doing a great job?

Of coarse it matter which party is in power…you don’t hear about issue like this in DA run municipalities! The problem starts at the top…no accountability, constantly blaming everyone or everything else. Self enrichment…the list goes on.

I agree with Chris Stoffel on this one, unfortunately. If the DA did gain control of Govan Mbeki Municipality, they would still have to employ locally and adhere to all the empowerment reg’s and that will ensure failure, we have no or very few engineers and artisans in the Platteland anymore.

I agree with you. It starts at the top who have the right attitude and work ethics.
I had a power fault and contacted municipality’s faults section at 07:00. At 09:00 2 black ladies came to call at my house. It was pouring with rain and the wind was blowing a storm. They quickly ascertained the fault was on the top of the pole in the street. In this stormy weather they took a ladder and fixed the fault that was a loose connection.
No way I myself would have worked on wires in rain. I really admired their work ethics. At 09:45 I could use my stove and kettle again. That is service. Naturally this is in the WC.

Absolutely true. I alternate living in Kimberley and in Mossel Bay. In Kimberley you cannot mail any municipal worker, telephones are never answered, I pay 4 times the rates and taxes, raw sewerage spills down the street, water is cut off regularly and the roads are mainly potholes. In Mossel Bay I can mail a responsible person directly and expect an answer and a callback on the same day. Efficient and friendly and your problem is actually solved. Potholes, sewerage, broken pipes, water and power outages also unknown there. In ANC municipalities the fish is merely rotting from the head.

That is the way to go. Less talk and more legal action.

Government will eventually be alerted to the problem and employ resources with either have the will power to work or experience to deliver what they get paid for.

Amazing dimensions of ANC failures! Most likely not enough yet for the
logically challenged voters to throw these destructive and parasitical scum out at the next elections .

Given the above article and the potential outcomes, if it favours the rates payers would it be worth taking the national government to court?

The IEC needs to have basic set of qualifying & disqualifying criteria for both the election and annual control over local; provincial and national government which includes:
1) Clean Audit both financial and procedural
2) Decrease in Crime
3) Decrease in Unemployment 4% Annually (Per 100,000 unemployed persons)
There are probably more qualified people than myself to come up with a suitable criteria, these are just ideas

The anc base voter support are also by enlarge those who play the national lottery at a disproportionable rate to their income compared to those who are middle and high income who spend a lower proportional value of their income in the game of chance. They are playing for the big win, not small gains and when they win their newly acquired value self destructs so to speak. It is the same reason why there voter base still have the mindset of having as many children 3+ whilst most middle class hardly have more than 2, the idea being that if you have more kids their is a higher chance of 1 making it.

Unless the salaries and pensions of the municipal managers start getting attached in cases such as this nothing will happen. The ANC learned long ago that their actions, no matter how heinous, have no consequences.

As the evil Myeni said, “It is our time to eat.”

ANC municipalities are not failing. They are highly successful in the execution of their mission statement. It is merely that the side-effects disappoint civilised people. We don’t agree with the mission statement, but we are the minority, so our view does not matter.

The fact that a South African municipality is not supposed to be a vehicle for service delivery, but a vehicle for the redistribution of property instead, is a recipe for disaster. A municipality has a license to redistribute the asset-value of property owners to self-interested ward councilors, clueless and inept municipal workers, and as free services to community members.

This process has been ongoing for almost 30 years, and the “intrinsic value” of the municipality has been consumed by those who were intended to benefit from this policy. We are witnessing the inevitable results of ANC policies, and of the Freedom Charter, more specifically.

It is a sign that the communalist voter has succeeded in turning his environment into a manifestation of his mindset when there is no electricity, no running water, and when the sewage fills the potholes. This is what a municipality promises to deliver in South Africa. The trend is heading in the direction of further collapse, and while there are some ratepayers left, the process is not finished yet.

Well said as always. Government has shown that it is not reforming it’s anti growth policies nor is it fighting corruption.

Big business goes along for the ride, hoping that the crocodile will eat them last.

But where are the voters? We shall shortly see whether the turkeys, once more, vote for christmas

@Navigator: The “turkeys” you refer to are made up mainly of recipients of social grants including pensioners, single unmarried mothers etc. That amounts to approximately 20 million “turkeys” who will without doubt be voting for xmas – for fear of missing out on future monthly slices of xmas cake. Then we have the “turkeys” living at the pleasure of the “local chieftain”. If they do not vote for xmas, and it’s not difficult to figure out that there are ‘traitors’ among the constituency, they will be relieved of their patch of land. The chief does not wish to lose the monthly allowances & related benefits dished out courtesy of Lootfreely House and funded by the taxpayer so he will make sure the voting pattern is as required. So, who cares what happens to the rest of the country / economy? But that is just my guess.

Spot-on Sensei. Like your angle to this matter. (The ANC is busy with their long-term “demonstration” how a country fails. The functioning DA is an embarrassment to the African National Corruption.)

How the anc honor their “war hero’s”.

The name of many now just a symbol of rot, corruption, theft and failure.

Viva! anc.

Everyone gave examples/anecdotes of the manifestation of a system of appointing officials (or any level of worker) based on ethnicity / skin colour and nepotism, while skills, experience, qualifications takes a far lower 2nd priority.

The above is written in the Employment Equity Act…so it’s law.

What do we expect from SA after 26 years of “democratic looting”?

The writer, RW Johnson, refers to in his book as a “artificial economic system” and to which “no Western, industrialised economy can survive that”.

Thus at least something is working: when there is poor leadership, skills removed from society, the long-term consequence will be failure”. In short: The ANC plan to fail, economically.

(…what happened to upliftment through proper education??)

Proper education as a priority is on hold. Educational material is still undergoing ‘transformation’. Still too many facts around. Perhaps there will be a move to ensure ‘re-education’ as the CCP is doing with the Uyghurs. No objections to that by the wokists it seems. i.e. no need to ‘take a knee’.

Here we have citizens complain about a resource that can be self-generated (yes, it will cost money….just pass on the cost. The ANC is showing us, to enjoy 1st world benefits in a 3rd world country, is going to be expensive).

Things are still going “Okay”. Electricity is a minor issue….but just try to CREATE WATER!! This will be the REAL CRISIS that will be coming to small town SA…potable water/sewerage management.

“How Long Will South Africa Survive” operating on old non-maintained equipment, dams, piping, reservoirs, that were constructed mostly during the Apartheid era??

That is the real question – in the South Hills the residents have been without water for more than a week (we can only summize that the top boys have a hand in the water tanker tenders!!). Absolute hell.
I have always been more concerned about Water Shedding as opposed to Load shedding.

If Mpumalanga residents votela ANC again, they need their head read.

The microcosm of the small town, perfectly reflecting the macrocosm of entire country.

Why can NERSA not withdraw the distribution license of Govan Mbeki Municipality and license a competent service provider (be it Eskom Distribution or a private distributor) to do it? Same for a all other dysfunctional municipal distributors. They must either deliver on their constitutional mandate to reticulate electricity, or lose their license. It is time to get tough.

End of comments.

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