130115. Cape Town. Numsa and civil society coalition on Monday protested against Eskom's proposed 16 percent electricity increase outside a public hearing at the CTICC in Cape Town. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

Durban - The South African Cane Growers’ Association has warned that 35 000 people, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal, stand to lose their jobs if Eskom’s proposed tariff hike of 16 percent a year over the next five years is given the nod.

The National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) held a public hearing in Durban on Thursday to hear what businesses and the public thought of the proposal. For once, unions, pressure groups and businesses were united – all condemned the proposed increase.

The meeting was held at the ICC with the police watching over angry protesters outside the building.

Thomas Funke, industrial affairs director at the cane growers’ association, said: “It is not possible to digest anything higher than inflation.”

However, the best option would be no increase in the price of electricity, he said.

The proposed tariff would render irrigated sugar cane farming uncompetitive and could see the closure of four mills and have a dramatic impact on food security.

South Africa’s sugar was of the highest quality in the world and the industry had a turnover of R10 billion a season while employing about 350 000 people, Funke said.

Cosatu KZN secretary Zet Luzipho warned that although Eskom said the increase would be 16 percent, communities would pay more because of the surcharges that would be added to that amount.

“The majority of our people are facing disconnections… they are mainly living on R10 a day,” he said. Those people would return to ask for the free basic electricity of 50 kilowatts a month to which poor households were entitled, putting more pressure on Eskom.

Numsa president Cedric Gina suggested that coal be classified as a “strategic asset” to avoid it being sold to Eskom at exorbitant prices that pushed up the electricity price. He also lashed out at municipalities for surcharges on electricity, saying he wasn’t aware that they were supposed to make a profit on electricity.

One of Thursday’s most dramatic presentations came from the Umtshezi Municipality, which covers the areas of Estcourt and Wembezi.

Councillor Dawood Vahed, who uses an oxygen generator to facilitate breathing because he suffers from emphysema, said he depended on the machine to live, but once he became a pensioner the rising cost of electricity might mean he would have to switch it off and “wait for the almighty to call me”. - The Mercury