How I had to get an armed guard to prevent the City of Joburg from erroneously disconnecting my electricity – despite it being the wrong address entirely

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Even though the name and house number were wrong, the address was for an entirely different street and the electricity meter number was incorrect, City Power contractors tried to disconnect our electricity last Wednesday morning.

The only way I could prevent them – because they refused to listen to common sense – was to get my private security firm, BeagleWatch, to send an armed guard to stand in their way. Without this, they would have disconnected the wrong house, in the wrong street, in the middle of winter – a mistake entirely of their own making. Welcome to Gangsta’s Paradise.

Two contractors from Lefhumo Lwa Barema Trading Enterprises arrived in the morning with documents stating the electricity “to this premises has been disconnected as the account is on arrears”.

Having misread my meter number, the two contractors got increasingly aggressive and hostile and would not listen to reason.

No matter how much I tried to explain to them that the name and addresses were wrong – the first document was addressed to “Mkhize” and the second to an architectural development firm, both for another house number in a totally different road – these two men kept insisting the meter number was the same.

This is despite a press release from the City of Joburg’s director of communications and stakeholder relationships, Kgamayane Maphologela, from 14 July 2020, which clearly states: “there are currently no municipal agents assigned to [ratepayers’] properties to disconnect water or electricity supply”.

It was only when we showed them our City of Joburg rates statement, which was up to date, that we realised their mistake. But not before nearly an hour’s worth of increasingly aggressive haggling by the two contractors who refused to accept that they had the wrong information.

They conceded that the name and street address were incorrect (our house is on the corner of the wrong street) but maddeningly kept insisting the meter number was what mattered.

At first, however assuming at the very least they could get the reading of the meter number right, my wife and I tried to reason that if the name and address were wrong, there must be a billing mistake.

When I called their boss, Neels van der Merwe, the general manager of Lefhumo, to explain the mistake, he listened, said the orders came from City Power and put the phone down on me.

When I called him a second time, identifying myself as a reporter, he told me the truest thing anyone has said about South Africa in this pandemic: “What the President said on TV and what is happening on the ground are different things”.

Luckily, I had private security to call before City Power’s own contractors broke its own rules around disconnections. What’s more troubling is the City of Joburg has a director of communication saying one thing, and its own department doing something else – even when it’s completely incorrect as it was in my case.

This column originally appeared in the Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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