Eskom, outsource all your contact with ordinary people: Current situation is shocking

Consumers are not getting the help they need when faces with prepaid electricity meter woes. Picture: Matthews Baloyi/ Independent Newspapers

Consumers are not getting the help they need when faces with prepaid electricity meter woes. Picture: Matthews Baloyi/ Independent Newspapers

Published Jul 3, 2024


While much has been said about Eskom’s latest three months of no load shedding, the fact is consumers that rely on Eskom power are one broken pre-paid meter away from a dark Kafkaesque age, and the situation for the elderly and vulnerable residents could soon become critical after such an accident.

For some months now, I have had to deal with two Eskom-related consumer problems. It has been a long and arduous journey of phone calls, reference numbers, chat bots, untold exasperation; and a quick ask around to friends and colleagues revealed that I am by no means alone with these issues.

It appears that Eskom has closed itself off to all human-to-human contact from its ordinary consumers, who are usually charged for electricity either through pre-paid meter or from electricity readings based on electricity meter readings, or what Eskom “estimates” the charge to be.

My first issue arose with an elderly relative, whose pre-paid box had broken after an unobservant builder put a ball-pein hammer through it. Her first instinct was to call an electrician, but they told her that they are no longer allowed to work on Eskom equipment at all. Only an Eskom technician could repair the problem, they said. For the record, the breakage occurred last October.

The relative then tried the Eskom online help line, only to be told by the electronic voice time and again that a technician would be sent, and on each occasion she was issued with a new reference number.

This was after the relative and I also discovered that the help line does not actually list a broken pre-paid meter as an option to be dealt with. It transpired also that the reference number was a purely notional number, as no human Eskom voice can be reached at Eskom to look back into the previous problem and verify the reference number.

Had this elderly person, who lives alone, lost her pre-paid box in winter instead of summer, she may well have died from the cold without electricity. And if this person had to rely on electricity to operate medical equipment in the home, it would have been life-threatening.

As it turns out, after much questioning from other Eskom consumers, Eskom personnel do in fact come out to homes, but they do not make appointments, call before arriving, and can arrive at any time or day. In this elderly person’s case, they arrived three months later, without announcement or calling, and she wasn’t home. She was alerted by a neighbour that the Eskom van did indeed arrive.

Needless to say, after both this person and my efforts with Eskom, after countless hours of trying to reach somebody, this prepaid box to this day remains broken. And it still worries this relative to no end, as she believes her home won’t be able to be sold or only at a much-reduced price, because of the broken prepaid meter.

The other issue occurred when I recently moved to another house. My partner and I were paying R800 a month for electricity on a prepaid meter that was supplied by Cape Town Metro, only to discover at the new rented house that I was now expected to pay around R3 700 per month based on Eskom’s latest “estimates” of our consumption.

It transpired that the owner of the house we had rented had pretty much given up dealing with Eskom on the super-high electricity bills also after spending hundreds of hours trying to sort it out. With the electricity meter outside the house on another property and locked by Eskom, she had tried in vain to get an Eskom employee to at least come read the meter. Needless to say, we are still waiting…

The owner then applied for a pre-paid meter more than three months ago. Again, apart from a vague communication saying Eskom would deal with the matter in two months’ time, there has been nothing. The owner has instructed us to keep alert for the Eskom van, because, as the owner said, “They could arrive at any time.”

Many Eskom properties do not allow consumer queries on their premises any longer. These two small issues of mine occurred in middle-to-lower income suburbs, but I have been reliably told by other people that Eskom consumer service-levels are far worse in lower-income suburbs and informal settlements. And this is from people who pay their bills every month.

South Africans deserve better than this shocking service. This is what happens when government organisations try to be everything for everybody, but are clearly overwhelmed. Fortunately, the electricity market is opening up. But Eskom, already struggling to produce enough power which is imminently and hopefully being split into three business groups, also needs to outsource its consumer-facing operations.

Edward West is a senior reporter and Night Editor of Business Report.