Electricity Action Group wins important court victory
On Thursday the 28th July 2016 the first public interest case in the country to clarify the rights of citizens to access free basic electricity was to be heard in the Pietermaritzburg High Court. The case was brought by the Electricity Action Group [EAG], a group of mostly elderly women residing in low-income households from communities across Pietermaritzburg.
It was to test the failure of Msunduzi Municipality and Eskom to provide free basic electricity to low-income families who access electricity through a prepaid meter on the basis of being discriminatory, unlawful and unconstitutional. The EAG was represented by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and supported by PACSA. This case was to bring to a close a 6 year battle by Pietermaritzburg’s citizens for affordable electricity; and to be heard, treated with dignity and for justice to prevail.
For 13 years Msunduzi Municipality (Pietermaritzburg) has had the policy framework and systems in place, and the money to help low-income families afford electricity but they had chosen not too. This decision pushed tens of thousands of families deeper into debt and forced them to put their families’ lives at risk by using unsafe sources of energy to cook food, keep the lights on, and their families warm and secure. It excluded and discriminated against low-income families in the city; families who were not given a choice to have a prepaid meter, and who are struggling to pay expensive electricity tariffs, whilst also paying for transport, education and putting food on the table.
On the 28th July 2016, in the Pietermaritzburg High Court, a settlement was reached by the Msunduzi Local Municipality and Eskom Holding Limited and the Electricity Action Group (EAG), represented by the Legal Resources Centre, to provide free basic electricity to low-income households using prepaid electricity meters.
After a few hours of negotiations, the following was made an order of Court:
• Indigent households in the Msunduzi Municipality’s jurisdiction using prepaid electricity meters qualify for free basic electricity, and are not to be excluded by virtue of using prepaid meters.
• Where the Municipality is the service provider, it shall provide the same allocation of free basic electricity to qualifying households using prepaid meters as it pro¬vides to all other indigent households on the credit meter system (currently 70kWh per month to each qualifying household).
• Where Eskom is the service provider under the Msunduzi Municipal jurisdiction, Eskom shall provide free basic electricity to qualifying indigent house-holds who access electricity using prepaid electricity meters, in terms of a valid written agreement between Eskom and the Msunduzi Municipality.
• The Msunduzi Municipality shall take all steps necessary to repair and/or replace the Applicants prepaid electricity meters by 31 October 2016.
• The Msunduzi Municipality shall deliver a report to the LRC by 31 October 2016 setting out the steps that it has taken to comply with the order of court.
• In the event of any dis¬pute aris¬ing regarding the implementation of this order, any party may re-enrol this application.
In Pietermaritzburg, 70kWh of free basic electricity works out to be around R100 free electricity a month. The EAG knows that this is not enough. That the struggle continues to ensure all people are able to access as much electricity as their families need; but they also know that it will make a small difference to ease the affordability burden.
The EAG’s court victory was important to win. But the struggle to win has meaning beyond accessing 70kWh of free electricity. The EAG stood together and met together every 2 weeks for 6 years. They continued fighting regardless of the onslaught to keep them quiet, keep them in their place. In the process they claimed the right to think, to speak and to act for themselves. They fought not just for themselves, but for everybody. They could have taken a short-cut many times; but they didn’t. When we walked out of the negotiations; with one fist in the air, and the other grasping mine, Doreen Taylor expressed what we had all been feeling – pride. She said, “We did it. We won. We have been belittled, shouted and sworn at. We have been humiliated and shunned. We did not give up. For 6 years we never ever gave up. We fought. And we fought and today we walk out of here with a victory which we claim, not just for us; but for everybody. We did this for everybody. And we didn’t have to. We sacrificed ourselves for something bigger than ourselves. I am so happy today. I am so proud of us. We did good.”
The access to affordable electricity is critical to decrease the level of disparity in society. This public interest case was included in the EAG’s broader campaign which is about dignity, about love, humanity and justice. It is about everyone having services (electricity, water, decent toilets, frequent refuse removal, street lights that work, decent schools for our children, enough and nutritious food, good quality health care and safe and reliable transport) so that all people can live in dignity.
The EAG believes that everyone should have access to services because services are intrinsic to human dignity. Nobody should be denied access to services because they cannot afford to pay for them. Nobody should be forced to choose between which basic need must be cut to make sure they have another basic need. That our dignity cannot be reduced to money. They refuse to put money before people. That there should be universal access to services for all.