News / Opinion / Columns

Martin Williams
3 minute read
6 Mar 2019
9:35 am

Courts can’t help you when the power goes off

Martin Williams

Improvement is difficult with a R170 billion infrastructure backlog, bequeathed by the previous administration, which neglected infrastructure.

City Power contractors work on a mini-substation after it blew in Parkview, Johannesburg, 15 February 2019, as the power was turned back on shortly after load shedding. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Enduring a second power outage within 24 hours, the good folk in Ward 90 were commendably tolerant on Monday.

Amazing, considering there was no indication of when electricity might be restored. Communication was sub-standard. And this wasn’t even load shedding. Just more City Power outages. Arrgh!

Each ward councillor develops their own way of coping with complaints. With varying degrees of success, I strive to be polite, understanding and effective.

But nobody’s perfect, and I am not nobody. So, I became impolite when, after 9pm, a phone caller announced his legal qualifications and said he would approach the High Court in the morning to compel the municipality to provide services, including electricity.

That’s an intriguing prospect. Ward councillors are forbidden by law to “give or purport to give any instruction to any employee of the council” (Municipal Systems Act, Schedule 1, paragraph 11).

So, while we councillors may not give instructions, here’s a fellow who wants to use the courts to give the City instructions. Perhaps I should be grateful, even envious.

The reasons why electricity in Johannesburg frequently goes off have been explained often enough, and I shall repeat below. But some folks don’t want to hear any excuses. When power fails, memory and logic are short-circuited by “yes, but”.

“Yes, but we pay a lot for electricity. We deserve better”.

Indeed, you do, as do other residents, including officials and councillors. Not on the basis of who pays more. We all deserve better. And the City is striving to improve services.

Improvement is difficult with a R170 billion infrastructure backlog. R170 billion, let that sink in. The City’s capital expenditure budget for this financial year is R7.8 billion, across all departments. Do the arithmetic. At this rate, we may never overcome the backlog bequeathed by the previous administration, which neglected infrastructure maintenance and upgrading. But we are trying.

The nine-month closure of the M2 highway, where bridges are cracked, is testimony to neglect.

Back to City Power, whose share of the infrastructure backlog was in 2017 estimated at R67 billion. It will be a long time before all substations, cabling etc are up to scratch. Consider, for example, the 70-year-old Roosevelt Park substation, where catastrophic transformer failure in 2016 left residents without power for four days.

Roosevelt Park is being refurbished, at a cost of R133 million over three years. It’s a work in progress, subject to outages, which impact on the availability of repair teams elsewhere, delaying supply restoration.

On Monday night, workers could not get to Ward 90 until they’d dealt with multiple Roosevelt Park substation faults. It’s tough out there. I am always especially grateful to teams working deep into the night.

Adding to the burden, Eskom load shedding plays havoc with ageing infrastructure. When power is switched back on, the surge produces multiple trips.

In this climate, with practical and financial challenges, how would a court interdict help?

Martin Williams, DA councillor.

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