Tshwane smart meter ruling vindicates critics
The then mayor of Tshwane, Kgosientso “Sputla” Ramokgopa, as head of the ANC-led administration, was preparing to deliver his State of the Capital Address at Freedom Park at 11am.
On that morning, the Pretoria News had a front page headline “R1.2bn meter riddle”.
This, with street posters, reflected the story about the enormous cost of the smart meter contract the City had entered into.
Not that the headline was intended to cause harm to the City. This is a metro of which the Pretoria News is very much a part, but our duty as the press is to inform the public of matters of interest. It is not to protect or inflate the reputation of politicians and the institutions they represent.
If the headline and story, or its timing, were deemed to be unfavourable or negative to the City, this was coincidental. It was, as we say in the media, when the story “broke”.
So as guests took their seats, here was this revelation that the City could incur costs of up to R1.2 billion after terminating the deal it had with Peu Capital Partners to install prepaid smart electricity meters.
Ramokgopa and his administration were livid. There were no penalties for terminating the deal, they insisted. The Pretoria News had it wrong.
Bear in mind that prior to Peu - ranked among the greatest financial disasters to hit a post-apartheid South African local government - Ramakgopa was already on the ropes, and tended to lash at anyone he believed was overly critical of his administration. Our editor had experienced it, and so had I as the Metro Reporter at the time.
But allegations of factionalism in the ANC region he chaired, and claims of corruption within the metro he led, particularly related to tenders, came thick and fast.
Apart from smart meters, there was the flop TribeOne Dinokeng music festival, the escalating costs of Tshwane House, issues around Operation Reclaim and more. The official media team had a tough time putting out the fires.
The Peu controversy came into the open after the Pretoria News had sent questions to the metro, seeking clarity after receiving information that the City was being milked by its service provider, and was paying more than R1million a day for the meters. It later emerged this was in fact R4m.
On May 12, just two days before the State of the Capital, the City sent out a statement announcing the termination of the contract. According to the statement, the City had held an urgent meeting with Peu to discuss the terms of the termination and ensure there was continuity of service to customers who had smart meters installed in terms of the contract.
In his address, and the breakfast panel discussion about the budget held the following day, he was to brag about having done the right thing. Our editor was an invited guest on the panel, but he lambasted the Pretoria News for what he felt were its misleading reports.
He labelled the newspaper’s editorial team “public enemy number one” in front of the audience, accusing it of being anti-transformation and progress in the city.
In terminating the contract just before the address, had Ramokgopa banked on a headline congratulating him on saving the public money? But we had information that despite the cancellation, the City would continue to pay for the almost 13000 meters already installed, and that over the two-year termination period that had been proposed, this would amount to R1.2bn.
When it was conceived, the smart meter project was intended to improve revenue collection for electricity with a cash-upfront payment. But, the administration chose to install the meters in the east of the city, where users were willing to pay for their electricity - rather than in the townships where the City was owed money because of non-payment.
Another benefit, the City had claimed, was to reduce the cost of sending out bills. However, customers were still receiving service bills anyway, so how did removing the payment for electricity really save that much?
But, the biggest question was why the deal was not put out to tender, to which the answer was that this would be unfair on what he called the smart young men who came to him with the project.
The truth is that the City entered into a multi-billion contract with a service provider without following due process and not only was this under Ramokgopa’s watch, but also that of his then municipal manager and responsible accounting officer, Jason Ngobeni.
A few months after the State of the Capital Address, in the November of that year, the ANC administration again trained its sights on the Pretoria News, following an editorial calling for the meter contract to be probed.
The Pretoria News was accused of breaking away from editorial objectivity parameters and choosing to support the call for charges to be laid on the Peu matter”. All we had done was to call for an investigation as the matter would not die down. As it turned out, in the elections of August 2016, the ANC lost its grip on the City to a DA-led coalition. Surely the divisions within the party and the record of its administration wasteful spending had some part to play in this result?
Fast-track to recently when the full bench of the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, overturned every aspect of the smart meter roll-out and implementation agreement between the City of Tshwane and Peu and its subsidiaries.
When asked for comment, all the ANC would say was it was studying the judgment.
But the media - including the Pretoria News - and critics such as DA and AfriBusiness, can surely now say, we have been vindicated.
Kennedy Mudzuli is the assistant editor of Pretoria News and was Metro Reporter when the Peu story broke.