Journalist Dianne Hawker falls down the rabbit hole deep into Wonderland trying to transfer her electricity account to a prepaid meter.
I have lived in Johannesburg for 10 years now, but it has only been in the past two years, since I have owned a home here, that I have seen the true ridiculousness of the City of Johannesburg billing machine.
It is an unwieldy, disorganised mess in which you begin to question your own sanity. This year, the City is proposing yet another price increase – one that will leave some customers reeling.
With such unreliable and often maddening service, the only incentive to pay these tariffs is the monopoly the municipality has on delivering certain services.
Let me take you down the rabbit hole.
In 2019, I began the process of transferring my electricity account to prepaid. Some friends, who had done this before, warned me this would not be an easy task. I would face unfriendly municipal staff, several visits to the municipal offices and would need to pay my current bill in full.
This was all manageable, if tedious, so I proceeded.
To change to prepaid you have to first go, physically, to a municipal office to collect a poorly printed form and fill in information the municipality already has on its system.
There is no electronic version of this form, for reasons that nobody could explain to me.
If you time it well, you will only lose about an hour of your life.
The form is filed and you are asked to return in two weeks and by that time you should have a zero balance on your account.
Alternatively, you should pay your final bill on this visit.
Now, if you time this second visit poorly and arrive on the first week on the month when a new bill has been calculated, you will be required to pay the old bill, the new bill and a R900 fee to transfer to prepaid.
Monies paid, you will then wait for installation.
Nobody can tell you upfront how long this will take.
It could be months. It could be days. But it will happen.
With me, it was a few weeks and a City Power official was calling me to tell me he is on his way to my house to install the meter. I had to rush home from work to let him in.
Machine tested, I was happy to be paying for what I use, instead of estimates. Once the prepaid meter is installed, one would imagine you will no longer be receiving bills containing an electricity consumption charge.
I mean, that is the whole premise of “going prepaid”.
Alas, this is where I realised I had fallen deep into Wonderland. My prepaid meter was installed in November 2019 and the following month my bill reflected an electricity charge. Strange.
I thought perhaps it was an error that would be resolved by January. But when the January bill arrived with the same electricity charge, I filed an email complaint and also contacted the call centre.
I was told by a chipper staff member that yes, she could see that I was being charged for electricity but no there was no way to escalate the issue.
This happened often, she said. It was being “resolved” and I would have feedback in a week. A week came and went without feedback.
I called again and was told something similar.
The second, less chipper staffer advised I should only pay the water and rates portion until the issue was resolved.
Me: How long would it take to be resolved?
Less chipper staffer: A week.
Me: But we are already two weeks beyond the initial week?
Less chipper staffer: Call back in a week ma’am.
It is now March 2020 and we are about to be plunged into a pandemic. I continue to pay a portion of my bill, as advised by the less chipper staffer, and hope for the best.
In May, I lodge another complaint and this time copy City spokesman Isaac Mangena.
I, unlike other residents, have his details and decide that six months into this saga is a reasonable timeframe before channeling my inner Karen.
I’ve lived in Bellville and have seen many Karen’s in action, I’m prepared.
Isaac promises to assist but apparently even he doesn’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes. Several of his colleagues are copied into an email where he implores them to assist me.
Within a week or two, a City Power technician calls me to “check on my complaint”. I take the man into my kitchen and show him the prepaid meter in all its glory. The technician confirms he too sees a prepaid meter.
I show him the most recent bill. He confirms seeing a charge for electricity use. It is clear to him, and me, that I am being double charged. It is ridiculous, he agrees. Will this be resolved, I ask him.
The technician gives a me a resounding yes.
“Don’t worry. It will be sorted.”
I’m like Alice when she’s still in the good-looking part of Wonderland, singing with the Cheshire Cat and happy to be having tea with the Mad Hatter.
Fast forward to 12 June, and I have heard nothing back from City Power until my latest bill arrives, demanding R15 979, made up of arrears and … you guessed it, a new electricity charge for R2 900.
It also contains a not-so-subtle threat of legal action: “You are hereby notified that unless immediate payment of the outstanding amount is made the council will issue an instruction to cut off services and institute legal action.”
I’m deep in Wonderland now. Off with her head!
After following up with Isaac, I have since been contacted by one of the three officials he copied into the initial email. The lady asked whether I have a reference number for the installation of the box from 2019.
I did not.
Do people keep installation reference numbers here in Wonderland?
She has assured me that the issue will be resolved “in a few days” but I’m not sure if these are normal earth days or whether we are using City Power Time, which like Wonderland, can find you waiting for a “one-week” resolution several months later.
– Dianne Hawker is a journalist and newsroom manager with experience in television, print and digital media. She is currently studying towards an honours degree in development studies.