Sole breadwinner unfairly fined for checking electricity box

Farzanah Khan of Mountview was fined R5 239 by the City of Cape Town after she allegedly tampered with her prepaid electricity box, and as the sole breadwinner, it is an amount she can ill afford.

Ms Khan wrote to various people at the municipality asking for help, but without much luck.

“While we were cooking one Friday, at about 5pm, our electricity suddenly went off, even though we still had units left on our prepaid meter box. I called the City many times, but no one came out, so we got someone to come look at the box, because with meals to prepare for two young kids and living in an unsafe area, it’s not nice to be in the dark. So we were desperate to get our power on,” said Ms Khan, who explained that the guy had opened the box but had not touched anything.

“‘The problem must be with the outside box in the road,’ he told us, but he did not touch anything else,” Ms Khan said.

At 3.40am on the Saturday, she said, she was woken by a call from a municipal official who was outside to tell her that the problem is at the box outside and that another technician would come later. The electrician arrived at 10.30am, but he could not repair the fault.

“I phoned them on Sunday, and on Monday some technicians arrived and asked us why we had opened the box.

“I explained that we didn’t know better and apologised and said we had been without electricity the whole weekend.

“The power was only restored on Monday afternoon but by then most of our stuff in the freezer had to be thrown out as it had defrosted and gone off, which cost a lot of money to replace and meant a difficult month to make ends meet,” Ms Khan said.

When she went to buy electricity, she only received 28.5 units for R100 instead of the usual 56.5 units.

When she queried it with the municipality, she was told that there was a fine of R5 239 for tampering with the meter and it had been loaded on to the system.

“No one told us this would happen or gave us an opportunity to state our case. I cannot afford to pay this, as my husband has been out of work since a car accident. Can you help to get this fine revoked or reduced?” Ms Khan asked me.

Well, the good news is that, instead of the fine, Ms Khan will have to only pay an inspection fee of R424.

Mayco member for utility services, Ernest Sonnenberg, said that after reviewing this case it was established that the meter did not need to be replaced.

“So the City can make a special concession. The R5 239 replacement charge will be voided, and the account will have an inspection fee of R424 loaded instead,” he said.

“The fee is to cover the costs of having to replace the tampered meter and make good the installation.

“Unfortunately, it does not matter if the supply was off at the time or however long it takes for the City to respond to an outage, the customer is not allowed to interfere with the meter.

“In terms of the delay in restoring supply to the property, we have been unable to find a complaint which corresponds with this time and location, and as such we are unable to talk to this case specifically. Complaints are attended to as soon as possible.”

Although Ms Khan was pleased that she would have to pay R424 instead of R5 239, she wasn’t too happy with the City’s reply.

“I find it distasteful that they say they cannot find a record of my calls, but I am sure it will show on my cellphone bill.

“I even had to throw away food that went off after it had defrosted and I have two kids I have to feed.”

Mr Sonnenberg sent a copy of the relevant by-laws. But in plain English, Section 25 states that the meter has to be sealed or locked by an official, and nobody except an authorised person is allowed to tamper with the seals or locks in any way. And Section 26 says that nobody is allowed to tamper with the box, and if there is prima facie (on the face of it) evidence of interference, the consumer will have to pay all costs the City incurs.

Ms Khan said they covered themselves with by-laws, “but we as the public should challenge them to tell us where we are told about them”.

“It is not indicated on the meter or on the box it came in, and if I had the resources, I would take steps to recover the costs of the food I had to throw away.

“If I hadn’t contacted you, I would have been paying R5 239 illegally, as they did not replace the meter they claim was ‘tampered’ with,” Ms Khan told me.