The Sunday Mail
PEOPLE can be dangerously inventive during times of crises, and some of them in ways that are not for the greater good.
While power blackouts used to plague most communities before the outbreak of the coronavirus, inactivity in most industries and mines as a result of the lockdown, including the progressively improving power supplies, means electricity has been available day and night in most neighbourhoods.
Ordinarily, this might be a good thing, but staggering electricity tariffs have left most households reeling. In fact, the Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company’s (ZETDC)’s new tariffs are considered “punitive”, and the too-clever-by-half individuals have been finding a way to bypass the system.
“Ingenious” ways of tampering with prepaid meters, illegal and direct connections that bypass electricity meters have become fashionable in some communities.
In some instances, consumers are paying kickbacks in order to be deleted from the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa)’s billing system, which prevents the possibility of accruing debts.
ZETDC first adjusted its tariffs by over 200 percent on October 2 last year and also came up with a new system that stratified them into three bands: the heavily subsidised tariff, which covers 50 units; the optimal use tariff, which covers an additional 150 units; and the tariffs for heavy users who go beyond 200 units.
In essence, the tariff structure is meant to reward austere users and punish heavy users.
The recent 19,2 percent hike became effective on March 1 this year.
Essentially, the 200 units of electricity now cost $186,50, up from $157 as the tariff has been reviewed to 49c per kilowatt-hour (kWh) from 41c per kWh. Where households needed $157 to purchase 200 units, they now have to cough up $186.
It gets worse.
Those who exhaust the 200 units will have to buy additional power at $4,61 per kWh.
Before the recent review, these pricier units were pegged at $3,87.
Worryingly, most households require more than 200 units of electricity per month.
For instance, an average family of six needs at least 300 units for a full calendar month, which presently costs more than $700.This has left many households down in the dumps, especially in high-density suburbs where co-tenants share electricity bills. Haggling over bills has become the norm in some communities.
Illegal helping hand
But most households find themselves between a rock and a hard place because they cannot readily switch to cheaper alternatives — there aren’t any.
Prices of liquid petroleum gas, which had grown into a favourite option for many, are discouragingly steep.
A kilogramme is fetching between US$1 to US$1,50, or, alternatively, $44 to $65 per kg in local currency. However, corrupt ZETDC officials have since identified an opportunity for rich pickings and are now offering an illegal helping hand to desperate consumers.
For a once-off payment ranging between US$60 and US$100, one can literally access electricity free of charge.
“This is a lifetime deal. The US$60 I am charging you is nominal compared to the benefit. You will no longer be paying these huge tariffs in this lifetime,” said a ZETDC employee (name withheld), who spoke to the Sunday Mail Society last week, as he justified his charge.
We got in touch with him after getting contacts from a shopper in a supermarket who was telling a colleague about the “miracle service”.
When we first contacted him, he was both suspicious and hesitant, but we eventually gained his trust.
“I am a ZETDC employee. I usually deal with people that I know to avoid trouble,” he revealed.
After convincing and agreeing terms with him, he visited a place of residence which we purported needed a “fix”.
“… your meter is at the top of the pole; therefore, I need to engage my boys from work. They will bring it down and connect it to the meter box, then I will do my part. However, that is going to be an additional cost for you. You will need to pay the boys,” he added.
“You need not worry about being detected, they come in their official work regalia, so everything will appear above board.”
The deal fell through because we told him we could not afford to pay the additional charges.
However, he gladly shared that his “service” has seen him travel far and wide “on duty”.
Some of his workmates also provide the same service. Zesa believes it is losing at least US$10 million in every three months through illegal connections. This means in a year the parastatal is being prejudiced of over US$40 million. Incidentally, the power utility also uses US$40 million per quarter to import power, replace transformers, cables and associated materials.
Authorities are, however, confident that they will be able to account for the criminals.
A new law that will impose a mandatory 30-year sentence on convicted offenders is currently in the works.
“Government is aware that people are stealing power and investigations are currently underway. We have a new deterrent law that we are working on,” explained Energy and Power Development Minister Fortune Chasi.
The Attorney-General’s Office is understood to be working on the amendments to the Electricity Act that will make this possible.
Previous sentences were considered to be lenient. Last year, Notion Charakupa, who was employed as a Zesa revenue assurance assistant, was fined $600 for illegally connecting 11 households in Chitungwiza while pretending to be on official duty.
Zimbabwe Republic Police national spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi confirmed cases of tampering with power connections were rising.
“Those caught tampering with power supply property will be arrested and prosecuted. This also applies to people that steal Zesa property like cables and transformer oil. We urge the public to cooperate with us so that we bring culprits to book,” said Asst Comm Nyathi.
Efforts to get a comment from Zesa Holdings spokesperson Mr Fullard Gwasira were futile as he failed to respond to questions that he requested us to send him.
Easy way out
For some consumers, illegal connections are an easy way out.
“Gas is expensive; so is firewood. I need electricity on a daily basis, but some of us can no longer afford it. It is better for me to look for these guys and make a once-off payment that guarantees me continued power supply,” argued Old Tafara resident Mai Panashe.
Usually rogue Zesa officials tamper with the meter is such a way that a token takes eternity to exhaust. Those who opt for this method are often told to constantly make top-ups to avoid easy detection by Zesa’s loss control department.
“I am actually looking for those guys. Before the installation of our prepaid meter, everything was okay as we constantly received electricity even after defaulting on payments. I would rather make the once-off payment,” said Tinashe Maredza.
Minister Chasi, however, said tariff hikes are unavoidable as there are determined by prevailing interbank rates.
“The hikes were as a result of the indexation formula that we put when the most recent tariff was arrived at; it simply tracks the exchange rate. A lot of our power is imported from Mozambique and South Africa, meaning that we cannot play around with local currency, which will be far much less compared to the actual cost.
“We are trying as much as possible to mimic the real cost of power, which is popularly known as the cost-reflective tariff, although we not there yet,” he said.
Tariffs hikes, he added, cannot be an excuse for any of the power-related offenses.