Carol Paton Writer at Large
Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

The courts have stopped Eskom from cutting off the electricity of two rogue municipalities that owe it billions telling government that it needs to take responsibility and find a solution to the problem of defaulting municipalities.

Hundreds of businesses and thousands of consumers have been affected by the cut-offs as Eskom tries to force municipalities to pay arrear debt. The Top 10 defaulting municipalities owe Eskom, which is financially stressed itself, R9,5bn.

The court judgments are the result of applications brought by businesses in Maluti-A-Phofung (Harrismith) and Emfuleni (Veereniging and Vanderbijlpark) which faced electricity interruptions despite having paid the municipalities for electricity. The municipalities did not pay over the money received to Eskom. Maluti-A-Phofung owes Eskom nearly R3bn and Emfuleni owes R1bn.

On Thursday the High Court in Johannesburg delivered interim relief in a matter brought by Cape Gate and seven other companies against Eskom, the Emfuleni Municipality, the Gauteng Premier and the National Energy Regulator of SA. It ordered that four respondents must, in terms of section 41 (3) of the Constitution – the clause which organs of state to make every reasonable effort to settle inter-governmental disputes - resolve the matter themselves within six months.

Over that period, Eskom may not interrupt the electricity supply and the businesses involved have been given permission to pay Eskom directly. If agreement is not reached in six months, then the parties may return to the court.

In the second case of Maluti-A-Phofung, the Free State High Court has ordered the establishment of a ministerial task team reporting to the minister of co-operative government and traditional affairs Zweli Mkhize to develop a recovery plan for the municipality. Unusually, in this instance, industry will be included in the task team.

This judgment draws on a different section of the Constitution – Section 139 – which compels provincial executives to step in where a municipality does not or cannot render its service obligations. Mkhize has 60 days in which to develop a plan.