More than 200 000 households in the Western Cape and potentially millions across SA have been hit as Eskom continues to struggle to get its prepaid electricity vending machine system running properly.
In Khayelitsha, people queued from dawn on Friday, while elsewhere others made a desperate dash for their nearest vendors.
The Cape Town Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it had received complaints from Parklands to Noordhoek, while Eskom said affected vendors included everyone from spaza shops to Pick n Pay.
Eskom’s Hillary Joffe said the utility had “over four million prepaid customers countrywide”, of whom 400 000 to 500 000 bought electricity every day.
Joffe said on Friday the Western Cape had been hardest hit.
While the system was “up and running again” Eskom could not guarantee that people would be able to buy electricity immediately.
“We’ll have to wait and see how it functions once we start seeing volumes (of people buying).”
There were about 260 000 prepaid customers in the Western Cape.
Each customer typically represents a family of four or five, or a small business, which means about one million people in the province could have suffered during the past two days.
Joffe said the problem persisted throughout Thursday. At about 8pm Eskom had to shut down the prepaid system overnight to “identify the root of the problem”.
“Our technicians are working around the clock to fix the problem to have it back up by today (Friday). Although we use a central prepaid system the Western Cape appears to be hit the worst… We do apologise to our customers for the inconvenience and we are taking the issue very seriously.”
Chamber of Commerce president Michael Bagraim said those affected would be poor people who had not been able to afford to “top up” or buy additional vouchers as back-up.
Bagraim said he understood that the majority of prepaid customers were emerging businesses, residents in new developments and the poor.
In November people were left in the dark because of a system failure. At the time Eskom said routine maintenance on the national online vending system had made things slow and caused “data lock issues” for people trying to buy electricity.
On Thursday, John Bernhardet had to shut down his Table View accounting business when his prepaid electricity ran out. He said he tried several vendors but none was able to connect to Eskom.
He had been “up and down” the northern suburbs the entire day in search of a vendor, without success.
“I even asked my aunt in the Eastern Cape (but) she couldn’t get a working vendor.”
“It’s crazy. I have a business to run and this is wasting my valuable time. I had to send my employees home… I can’t understand why an institution as big as Eskom doesn’t have a back-up plan… It’s a disaster.”
Around the corner from Bernhardet’s office, estate agent Fabio Siccardi, who was queueing for electricity at a garage, said he had been trying to buy electricity for the past two days.
“It’s a real inconvenience and Eskom is not going to pay for damages in my business and the food in my fridge that’s gone bad.”
Joke Hogg, a pensioner from Sunningdale, said: “I’ve been driving around everywhere for the past two days – to three Pick n Pay outlets, Melkbos, West Coast and Table View. I’ve tried two garages – the queues were out of the doors, and then we were told they’re offline…”
Former Cape Argus editor Andrew Drysdale, from Betty’s Bay, said he was “very angry and frustrated” because after two days there was “no sign of electricity” in the area, including Pringle Bay, Kleinmond and Somerset West.
“The most frustrating part is I want to pay for the service but I can’t and Eskom hasn’t given us any explanation… Eskom is very quick on hiking up their prices but not very good at maintaining their services.”
Delft resident Nolundi Zwai said she had been without electricity since Wednesday afternoon.
“Since Wednesday, my units were 0.89 and I can’t buy it anywhere. I used cold water to wash myself today (Friday) and I didn’t cook last night,” she said.
A Bishop Lavis resident, who did not want to be named, said the electricity at her home went off on Thursday. “I couldn’t make a cup of tea or cook and I had to wash in cold water before I left at five o’clock today.”
Bagraim said they had been advising business owners to stock up on prepaid electricity since the same problem occurred last November.
“Eskom needs to have a proper system in place and sort out their computer problem. Their system is used worldwide. I don’t understand why it’s such a problem here.”