September 30, 2010

Eskom: Adding Insult to Injury

I think I’ve written enough positive things about South Africa lately to be forgiven if I go on a bit of a rant again! This one is about Eskom, the utility company supplying South Africa with electricity (or striving to). It’s actually high time I complain about Eskom, as Telkom (phone and internet) and the City of Johannesburg (trash pickup) have already gotten ample coverage on this blog.

Ever since we moved here, our monthly Eskom invoice has included an ‘interest on overdue account” charge, even though we’d always paid the account right away.

It wasn’t very much, but even R100 here and there add up. Since we were new and had other things on our mind, we dutifully paid this interest every month, but by May I decided it was enough and called up Eskom. I was prepared to go on a rant and right this wrong, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when the account rep I talked to immediately conceded the point and supplied me with a reference number. A credit to my account would be forthcoming, I was informed. I filed away those invoices and checked the item off my list. But I should have known better. South African Lesson One: Nothing is ever done just because someone says so.

The promised text message to confirm the credit never arrived, and the June bill yet again showed a new interest charge. Even worse, our electricity stopped working for two days. Anyone living in South Africa will know that the first thing you do when you have no power is to check with your neighbors to see if they have power. If they don’t, you relax, shrug your “Welcome to Africa” shrug and move on, confident that eventually the power will be turned on again. But if your neighbors do have power, it’s a different story. So we called up Eskom, only to be informed that there were technical difficulties, which somebody was working on, not to worry. Except the power did not come back on even after a day. Lesson Two: Never take what the first person tells you as the truth; call back right away and keep complaining. When we called again, we were informed that the power accidentally had been turned off, their mistake, and please write down this reference number.

The power did eventually come back on, but the interest charge remained. In fact, in July the interest charge was the only charge on our bill. Our electricity consumption was listed at zero. Weird, so I called again. The account rep dutifully took down all my details, but once again, the promised text message with my account credit never arrived. As for the zero consumption, I was told that Eskom couldn’t be bothered to come for a meter reading every month, or to even do an estimated reading, and to please go to the meter box myself, perform a reading, and then make a deposit based on that. Huh? Screw that, I thought.

In the meantime, we went away in August, and disaster struck, in the form of another power turnoff while we were gone. The contents of our fridge and pool water were only saved by the loyalty and dedication of our domestic, who had come in to do some work, even though we had given her the entire time off. When she called us, my initial thought was that perhaps I should have done that meter reading after all, because maybe in the meantime Eskom had done their own reading and realized we’d used a ton of electricity (after all it was winter and the under-floor heating running nonstop).  Curiously, the lights were working, but all other power was off, so of course we assumed there was a technical problem, and called an electrician. But it turns out Eskom can cut different phases of your electricity, which is what happened in this instance, once again erroneously, as they themselves admitted. So a few days and a few hundred Rand for the service call later, our power was back (if not most of the food in our freezer). Lesson Three: Call Eskom first, it is ALWAYS their fault. And Lesson Four: When you travel, make sure someone checks on your house periodically.

Back home, I studied the newly arrived Eskom bill for August, and discovered that, low and behold, they had actually issued a credit. But I couldn’t celebrate quite yet, as the credit was nowhere near the actual number of the accumulated interest charges. It wasn’t even any combination of any of the charges, no matter how I calculated it. I would have SO loved for SOMETHING to match! I decided to just calculate what they still owed us, and only paid the difference. Then I called about 15 more times, both to complain about the interest and about the fact that no one ever texted me a confirmation or called me back, until I finally figured out that their system didn’t keep my cell phone number, even though they kept telling me they had updated their records to add it. It took another hour on the phone with a surprisingly competent rep to just fix that problem and get my first ever text message confirmation from Eskom.

I am now holding the September invoice in my hand. You won’t be surprised to hear that there is a new interest charge on it, plus – and our South African friends had all, to the last person, predicted this – a reconnection fee of R500. You do wonder if this is just pure sloppiness, or a scheme to make some more money: Turn off people’s power over the weekend and then slap them with a reconnection fee when they complain. At any rate, such insolence made me laugh, so at least that is some kind of progress. Having gotten tired of calling, I’ve actually been able to prod an email address out of someone and have now logged a written complaint. I almost fell off my chair this morning when I had a reply in my mailbox. But of course, all it contained was, as you will no doubt have guessed, a new reference number. And instructions on how to log a complaint online, to be supplied with an automated reference number. Final lesson: You might as well not waste your time with Eskom; just keep paying what they charge so that your power won’t be turned off FOR A REASON and keep track of what you overpaid, then deduct that amount from your final invoice when you move. Come to think of it, this is probably precisely what our predecessors did, which is why we ended up with an interest charge on THEIR overdue account in the first place!


Shari said...


My family is in the final stages of possibly moving to Johannesburg. We currently live in IL, but moved here from Singapore in 2009. Both my husband and I are from KS and noticed that you lived in KS and Singapore as well.

If we move to Johannesburg, we will probably live in Dainfern - assuming we can find suitable housing there. I believe our children (ages 6 and 8) would go to the American School as well. Is that where your children go or do they go to a different school?

Anyway, I would be very interested in talking with you about your experiences in South Africa.


P.S. Let me know if you think it would be safe to post my email address here or if there would be a better way to contact you.

Sine said...

Hi Shari,

that is wonderful news, and really cool about the KS and S'pore connection. I'd love to hear more about your experience. Our children actually go to Dainfern College, not the American School, and we're really happy with that, mainly because their school day is shorter that way, less commute, and other reasons. I think you should at least look at Dainfern College before you make a decision. You can also read my blog post about South African Schools to get more detail.
I don't think there is a risk posting an email address, but let me give you mine so you can contact me: sinethieme at I look forward to hearing from you!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I was thinking that because you were renting, the prior tenant stiffed Eskom and you were being punished for it. It could be a revenue generating exercise, though. Kind of like USA speed traps. In the end, paying whatever they say is probably the best bet and is what I plan on doing when the time comes, plus having a standby generator. I guess I'm not the only one thinking that as I have found several houses for sale in Sandton that have generators already installed.

Sine said...

We have friends who have gone completely off the grid because they were so frustrated. Except perhaps water, not sure if they have dug a well or still get that from the city. A generator is definitely a good idea if you don't want the hassle.