After townships grew all over the areas around Johannesburg from 1950 (and earlier), they remained unelectrified. The authorities who could electrify them (municipalities and State-owned power utility Eskom) were reluctant to electrify them because, they said, the residents would not pay for the electricity, harass meter readers, be difficult to sue for unpaid accounts and bypass tariff meters. Dear readers, this was in the days when you received an invoice for electricity in the post (the postal service worked) and you went to pay at the municipality in cash (no municipality accepted credit cards) or you posted a cheque.
If the account was not settled, the power was switched off by a service person at the distribution kiosk. It would be switched on again on the payment of a reconnection fee and the outstanding account.
Given that the current debt by Soweto residents to Eskom is R17-billion and there are thousands of illegal power connections to the main supply, the fears of the authorities were not unfounded. In fact, a senior government official is being sued for an unpaid utility bill of more than R500 000.
Nonetheless, keeping the townships unelectrified was just not right and, so, in the mid-1980s, a government programme was started to electrify the various townships. I was involved in two of these programmes.
The first electrification programme was undertaken in Motherwell township, in Port Elizabeth. I worked for Eskom Eastern Cape and, with much fanfare, Eskom announced that it would be installing an electrical supply system in Motherwell. I expected consulting engineers and contractors would be employed, but the State-owned utility was too proud for that – it was going to do it all in-house. So, they built a construction yard and a site office. They laid in-poles, cross-arms, lights, cables, kiosks, stay-wires, power line conductors and tariff meters.
The good citizens of Motherwell could not believe their windfall. They swiped the lot. So, Eskom restocked with in-poles, cross-arms, lights, etc cetera, and a serious security fence. The whole lot was stolen, including the fence. After that, construction proceeded, much more slowly, with heavy security. Only 20% of the materials were stolen. The site office was stolen on the last day of the contract by an entrepreneur with a crane truck on the side of which he had painted an Eskom logo.
My next involvement was the electrification of Alexandra township, in Johannesburg. My employers were invited to send an engineer to be appointed directly by the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA). I duly met the DBSA. I asked what I was to do, actually. They told me that my job was to check up on the consulting engineers who had been appointed to do the design work and contract supervision. The contract was not going well. On-site investigation showed that this was an understatement of the order of “Houston, we have a problem”. The domestic terminal boxes were being stolen the day they were installed. Cable drums visibly lost cable overnight.
Electricity was sold on a coupon system. Husbands, given money for a coupon by a wife, would go drinking. And the wives wanted to kill us, since they had to use paraffin for heating and light. So, I pondered and then finally came up with the solution: no electricity coupons would be sold to any man. No males. The results were very satisfying. Anybody stealing a terminal box got beaten up by a crowd of serious mamas. In fact, theft dropped to no more than 20% of delivered materials.
All this was years ago. About four years ago, I did a design and supervision of installation for a temporary housing relocation area. Nothing was stolen at all. I saw a young woman stamp-crushing mealies in her yard and, off chance, asked her why no theft ? She drew the stamper high and hammered it down into the mortar. “They don’ wan’ to steal. From woman.”
A lesson from history.