South Africa: Powerless in Johannesburg? Let’s make our voices count!

Date: September 10, 2013
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Johannesburg, 10 September: I am emptying out my refrigerator after four days with no lights when suddenly the lights go on. I should be excited but instead I am fuming – at being treated like a moron. Over those four days, my husband, recovering from a major operation, and I, tried countless times to find out from City Power when the electricity would come back on. No one answered the phone. There was not even an answering machine to say, “We’re sorry for the inconvenience, but this is out of our control.”

Johannesburg touts itself as the leading city of Africa. I have lived and worked in many African cities. None have ever left me so powerless, for so long, with zero recourse. If it was not for the media, we would not even have known there was a strike last week, certainly not from City Power who will turn your power off in a day if you are late paying your bill. When City Power turns your lights off because technicians are on strike so that they can earn R100,000 a month in overtime, the consumer must just suffer in silence and foot the bill.

I start to tot up my bill: R3000 to put up at a Bed and Breakfast. R1000 for take-aways. R1000 to fix our internet connection that blew with the power surge of the lights going on and off. Another R1000 to fix the gate that also went bonkers. Before you know it, R6000 out of the window. Add that to the time spent going back and forth, living out of partial suitcases, thinking your house of darkness is going to be ransacked and worrying about your ailing husband. The emotional stress bill makes the other one seem like petty cash.

I hark back to my university days in the United States when I was knocked off my bicycle and everyone around me encouraged me to sue. Grateful to be alive, I found the whole idea quite bizarre. But, that was precisely the point in the mind of my litigious American friends. Narrowly escaped death? Then whoever caused that should pay!

I recall once asking an official at Airports Company South Africa why it takes so long to get luggage out when flights generally land on time. Back came the response: “this is not New York!” So, when it suits us we are the leading city of Africa. When we want to wallow in mediocrity, well, we are not New York! The result: in South Africa, it is the consumer who must pay for the management blunders of City Power!

We have quickly forgotten the brilliant consumer boycotts that brought Apartheid to its knees. A passive consumer is a passive citizen. A passive citizen is the opium of good governance. I pick up The Times and read an interesting piece by Justice Malala on “opting out.” He asserts that when we fail to speak up, we opt out of the system. Next, he predicts, the middle class will buy its own generators, dig its own wells, buy higher security fencing, refuse to pay taxes, and form our own little local governments – we will opt out.

Speak out or opt out -these are the critical choices. If we opt out, we fail the ideals of our democracy, and become a banana republic. If we speak out, we make our voices count. If we make our voices count, we strengthen our democracy.

Anyone want to join a class action against City Power? Let’s start by putting our bills from all last week’s power cuts together and march on to their Johannesburg offices. If the engineers can toyi-toyi, so can the powerless consumers! Let there be some light at the end of this tunnel!

Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on every day news.




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