The face of ESKOM's free power

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.

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.

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.

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.

Such is the culture of non-payment in Soweto that it is estimated that 60% of people here do not pay anything.


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