Electricity, South Africa

Powerless and Powerless

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The Blank Screen of Death

Increasing numbers of South Africans have electricity meters at their properties. They are popular with landlords, because it forces the tenant to pay up front, thus avoiding nasty disputes about electricity bills during a tenancy. We didn’t realise our rental property came with one of these delightful pieces of equipment until after we had moved in.

“Ja, you just go to Spar and buy a voucher”, the estate agent said vaguely.

So after years of Direct Debit convenience where electricity supply was constant in return for the power provider debiting amounts due on a regular basis, we were in a situation where we had a meter on the wall. We checked it regularly to make sure it didn’t run out.   We religiously bought the 20 digit vouchers and on the occasions when the meter frowned and beeped at us with displeasure, ran frantically about the house trying different sockets until we found one that the meter was happy to communicate with.  Then we would get a smiley face and newly topped up balance showing on the screen.

However, we now know what happens when the meter gets to zero or malfunctions…

We’re not sure which it was, zero credit or a malfunction. One of our children, who shall remain nameless, fiddled with the under floor heating controls while playing hide and seek behind the sofa. It’s possible that that gobbled up our supply more quickly than usual and caught us unawares or it’s possible that the meter just died. Either way I arrived home on Friday looking forward to an easy evening and a glass of wine and found that we were powerless.  Yep, when the blank screen of death appears on your meter, the lights go out and there’s no quick fix to get them back on.

The meter did not come with a manual or a hotline to call in the event of a problem. After various phone calls we got through to somebody at the power provider and the best advice they could give in the first instance was:

Go to your neighbour’s house and try to top up/reboot it there.

Go to your neighbour’s house? This solution presumes that:

a) You have neighbours

b) Your neighbours are at home

c) Your neighbours are kind obliging people who, even though it’s Friday and they might have been busy relaxing shirtless by their pool, are happy to let you wander round their home trying different sockets and asking whether they wouldn’t mind turning off all major appliances to give your meter the best chance of working.

On the one side our neighbours had gone away on holiday, so short of breaking and entering, that wasn’t an option. We’d never actually seen our neighbours on the other side. Our houses are designed so that we never have to make awkward eye contact as we shuffle our cars in and out of our respective driveways.

It turns out they are perfectly pleasant and now that we are on first name terms, we could perhaps progress to the next step and invite them over for a beer sometime. However, the meter didn’t reboot, so we were still in a fix.

Our next step was to call our power provider to explain that making friends with our neighbours hadn’t solved the problem and to ask for a technician to come and sort out/replace our meter. On Friday we were told: “Yes, somebody will be with you within 4 hours”.

Ha ha ha ha ha. So funny.

We called again on Saturday.

We called many times on Saturday.

We called many times on Sunday.  By this time we could hum the ‘hold’ tune off by heart.

We have visitors flying in tomorrow. We had visions of them arriving late at night after a long intercontinental flight and showing them to their room by candle light, offering them a cold shower and a tepid beverage.

Thankfully it won’t come to that. Eventually, around 50 hours after reporting our lack of electricity, just as we were feeling hopeless and powerless about our powerless situation, a technician came and managed to turn the lights back on.

An hour after that I received a phone call. “Ma’am I’m coming now-now to fix your electricity problem.” I politely explained that it was unnecessary, as the problem had just been dealt with. Half an hour later a THIRD technician arrived.

This is not the only time we’ve been without electricity in South Africa. South Africa has – from time to time – a few tiny problems with the national power supply. You can read more about our subsequent predicaments in: 

The Dark Continent,

Now we’re cooking with Gas


Loadshedding Meals.





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