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The Game of Geysers

It’s a cold winter’s morning in Alex, but the new low pressure solar water heaters should mean chilly residents no longer have to boil the kettle if they want a hot bath… right? Uhm… no, it’s not that simple.

Wilson Tshauke: ‘For some of us they didn’t even connect it well. It’s just a geyser on top, but it’s not connected and there is no water.’

In the southern hemisphere solar water geysers work best facing north. But in Alex they point all over the show.

Bongani Bingwa (Carte Blanche presenter): ‘Martin, to the untrained eye this looks impressive; what is wrong with it?’

Martin Coetzee (Technical Officer: Institute of Plumbing SA): ‘Well, if you look at all of these solar water geysers on this side and down the road, all of them are pointing south, away from the sun. So the collector that should be in the sun is in shadow.’

Martin Coetzee is the technical officer for the Institute of Plumbing and a technical specialist for SABS.

Martin: ‘There must be about 50 or 60 that we can see just from where we are and all of them are pointing in the wrong direction towards the south.’

Bongani: ‘The City Power solar water-heating programme is a fantastic idea. Electricity gets saved, the poor get hot water and unskilled people get training. But in reality this pretty picture is being tarnished by how the contract is implemented, and we have some big and uncomfortable questions.’

All over Johannesburg, recipients of these geysers have questions too.

Sidwell Makuale (Pennyville resident): ‘We are not happy by the way, because geysers are supposed to make the water hot. Isn’t that so?’

This is Pennyville near Soweto. Sidwell Makuele is one of 19 residents we canvassed.

Sidwell: ‘You can go all around this place, geysers are not hot, people are complaining. Tomorrow it’s leaking, then it’s another story. Even the company that is working here we don’t see it again here, around!’

These are Clean Heat solar water heaters. Out of 19, eight geysers didn’t work, seven had low pressure and tepid water and only four residents were happy.

Yet 80% of the tender has gone to this manufacturer and its partner Exotic Warehouse. Angelina Modau doesn’t care who it is, she just wants her bathroom fixed.

Angelina Modau: ‘I am not happy because this geyser is not working. I complain for her to say you see this mess here. So when I am talking to her they say, ‘I am coming, I am coming.’ Every day is the same story!’

Angelina is understandably upset. Installers have broken her tiles and bent her blinds, removed her copper pipe, and this is what she is left with – a droopy tap that misses the bath [on screen].

Angelina: ‘This pipe here is broken. When I try open here, this one is coming out.’

City Power is paying 19 installers just over R126.5-million, but once they install they walk away, and the responsibility to ensure the geysers work lies with the two companies that manufacture them. But Angelina has had to make her own plans.

Angelina: ‘I make a plan like this [on screen] because this water is coming down in my room.’

And then it leaks into her downstairs neighbour’s house and causes trouble.

Angelina: ‘No, they are fighting every day!’

Perhaps the only happy ones are those making money out of this scheme. As it’s public money, we put a simple question to the GM of legal at City Power, Andrew Leshivha. He had the tender documents right in front of him.

Bongani: ‘I want to know what each of these units is actually costing the taxpayer.’

Andrew Leshivha (GM Legal Services): ‘I can only come back to you with that information. I looked around, I couldn’t get it.’

Bongani: ‘That surprises me, sir. This is an R800-million contract of public money. You have been tasked with explaining how this money is spent, and you are telling me you don’t know the unit price of those geysers?’

Andrew: ‘If I attempt to say anything to the press at the moment I won’t be honest with you.’

Bongani: ‘But we at Carte Blanche are not the only ones interested in those questions. Shortly after the tender was awarded the Metal Workers Union wrote a letter asking for the rationale and criteria for choosing the selected companies.’

For most of last year City Power fobbed off the union. Then, in December, City Power sent them a bundle of tender documents… only they were blank! That annoyed treasurer, Mphumzi Maqango, and provoked even more questions, so they took City Power to court.

Mphumzi Maqango (Treasurer: NUMSA): ‘Why they gave us blank documents? Why they took too long to respond and why so long to oppose the court? It obviously creates suspicion of what is going on here.’

Well what is going on? Exotic Warehouse were awarded the lion’s share of the contract. They will provide around 90 000 Clean Heat solar water heaters. Value to company: R473.5-million. Quite a windfall for Exotic warehouse. Priv Reddy, the sole director, is a man with friends in high places. He has been in business with Mxolisi Zuma – the president’s son.

Bongani: ‘What was it about their bids that made them successful?’

Andrew: ‘It was a requirement of the bid that the manufacturers had to be original equipment manufacturers that are doing business in Gauteng.’

But here’s what is odd – Exotic Warehouse is not a manufacturer, yet they managed to nudge out the biggest manufacturer in southern Africa by teaming up with a small operation called Clean Heat, run by Kenneth Chi-Lang Tan.

When we arrived, we were met by Exotic director Priv Reddy and his lawyer and, curiously, City Power’s Shavana Mushwana – in the red jersey [on screen]. Although we’d arranged an interview, we were told there would be no interview… just a site visit. Shavana said Exotic Warehouse won the tender because they can produce 15 000 units a month.

But Kenneth gave us a different figure.

Bongani: ‘So how many units can you get out of here every month?’

Kenneth Chi-Lang Tan (Director: Clean Heat): ‘The current production capacity of the plant is about 7 000 units a month.’

But this is currently nowhere near 15 000 units a month, so… is Priv building his business courtesy of the taxpayer? He was filled with talks of expansion as he showed us their test runs on their new glass tubes at their bigger and better premises.

Priv: ‘This is going up to 20 000 units on one shift.’

But will they be 20 000 units that work? Or will they be like this one [on screen], on Mamokethi Magalefu’s roof?

Mamokethi Magalefu (Resident): ‘In my view these things… it is a mess!’

She says someone did come to fix it, but they only made it worse. We recorded eight system failures out of 17 at Mamokethi’s home in Tshepisong on the West Rand.

Mamokethi: ‘It’s costing me money at the end of the day because I am taxpayer too.’

But are the taxpayers getting value? City Power finally gave us figures: each unit costs R 6 300 installed – an amount one source described as ‘lovely lolly’.

Part 2

Bongani: ‘City power is spending R800-million to roll out these solar water geysers. Here in Alex, Tasol products adorn the roofs – they have given the township something of a facelift, but are the residents happy about them?’

David Mvalo (Alex resident): ‘The first day when they put this [on screen] on it never worked; it was leaking all over.’

David Mvalo has a Tasol solar water heater, made by SASSA. They got a much smaller slice of the contract – value to the company close on R102.5-million. We spoke to the makers of this geyser, SASSA’s Chris Nelson.

Bongani: ‘Ultimately, even though you are not the ones directly installing them, it is your system that signs them off and seals them off and says to City Power, ‘This was a good job well done’.’

Chris Nelson (Director: SASSA): ‘Yes, that is right; that is the responsibility that we take.’

But if something goes wrong with their 19 900 systems, Chris is the go-to man. But he seemed unaware of the widespread unhappiness of people like David.

Bongani: ‘Has it caused any damage to your house?’

David: ‘At the back… there at the wall, even the plaster is falling down.’

It was time to bring in Institute of Plumbing expert Martin Coetzee again.

Bongani: ‘Martin, what do you see?’

Martin: ‘Well, the installation is not in the sunniest part, which is already one problem, because it’ll be in the shadow for most of the day. And then also the brackets aren’t fastened onto the roof. And where the pipe goes through the roof it’s not sealed off properly.’

Bongani: ‘What does that mean?’

Martin: ‘It means, when it rains it will leak into the house and also with [the] geyser leaking, that leaking geyser goes right inside the bathroom.’

So we squeezed into David’s bathroom.

Martin: ‘If this is the way that the installers have gone through a ceiling, it’s quite shocking. Surely a plumber wouldn’t do work like this?’

Well, according to the tender, all installations have to be signed off by a registered plumber.

Bongani: ‘Score out of ten?’

Martin: ‘Well, if it is not working for this person and it’s leaking, its zero out of ten.’

David: ‘They are not doing that in Sandton… they are not doing that in Marlboro.’

Bongani: ‘Why are they doing it here?’

David: ‘Because we are nothing.’

Bongani: ‘Ultimately, aren’t the poor being treated with contempt here?’

Chris: ‘No, not at all, Bongani. This is sort of an environment where the poor that have never had hot water gets, number one, the opportunity…’

Bongani: ‘So, what? … you cut their ceilings?’

Chris: ‘I don’t believe that. Bongani. I need facts.’

Bongani: ‘When you say you don’t believe it, are you then suggesting that what I’m telling you in this interview isn’t true?’

Chris: ‘I can’t say it is true or not true. I need the facts.’

Bongani: ‘We are a television programme. We work with pictures. We go and film things so we can show our viewers this is what we found. I am not thumb-sucking here. My question to you is not if it is happening, I’m asking you why it’s happening.’

Chris: ‘It should not be happening, Bongani and we will rectify that.’

Bongani: ‘Well, Chris, here are the facts from the complaints book in Alex. ‘Come and fix the geyser pipe.’ ‘The geyser is leaking.’ ‘Not installed properly.’ On, and on, and on… you would think when the tender was awarded for R102-million you would be able to find these.’

But Chris has subsequently told us that the complaints book has been stolen and they are conducting a full sweep of the area to assist complainants.

Bongani: ‘Let’s take an area like Alexandra – how are the inspections going?’

Andrew: ‘We have not received a number of complaints from Alexandra.’

Bongani: ‘This is a stack of documents from Tasol. We even have a copy of some of the complaint books – are you aware of this?’

Andrew: ‘I am not aware of those.’

Bongani: ‘What we have also done is, we have taken random examples here and we’ve gone to those homes to see if any of these complaints, as written in this complaints book, have been addressed. Many of them have not.’

Andrew: ‘We have been even to the project manager within City Power and asked if there are any complaints that he is aware of that have not been attended to. Up until this morning the answer I got is that there are not complaints that have not been attended to.’

David: ‘I phone… I phone… I phone… no answer.’

David took his complaint to the Alex site where the stock is delivered. This is where Joe Sequeira the storeman works. He felt so strongly about the shoddy service that he was prepared to blow the whistle – knowing he would lose his job.

Joe Sequeira (Ex-storeman SASSA): ‘There is no quality control; all the manufacturing side, they are just rushing to supply, to supply.’

But he couldn’t even drive around Alex in the Tasol bakkie without being harassed.

Joe: ‘They hate the product, they swear me; they think I am Tasol – I am supplying the stuff.’

He says the stands that support the geyser are too flimsy.

Joe: ‘I can bend it like that.’

And two of them actually collapsed.

Joe: ‘Before the guy got down the stairs after completing the installation, once the geysers were filled with water, it just collapsed.’

The systems have a five-year guarantee, yet only months after installation, lids are missing in places, some units are even missing tubes.

Joe: ‘The lids are delivered with dents, before it is delivered to site. Here is one that is in a box [on screen] and you can see what I am telling you – [it’s dented] – this is how they deliver them to site.’

Bongani: ‘What would make those fall off?’

Chris: ‘Bongani, it’s in the manufacturing process. When we don’t extrude or don’t corrugate the inner tank properly – that would mean the lids would come off. And I can promise you that those will be replaced.’

Although brass taps were originally offered, in several bathrooms we found these plastic taps [on screen] instead.

Chris: ‘I think we have installed these taps for quite some time. At the end of the day, Bongani, it works.’

But are they SABS approved? Martin did a strength torque test exactly as SABS would do.

Martin: ‘This tap has just broken. That is telling us that the tap doesn’t comply with the SABS standards. It needs to operate… without any failure, without breaking, up to 15 Newton metres.’

SASSA sent us the SABS approval, but Martin says this did not mean the taps were fully compliant. The approval is for only one small test.

Bongani: ‘Okay, so even the plastic taps SABS have approved?’

Chris: ‘Yes.’

The biggest complaint in the book seems to be leaks. Joe showed us why.

Joe: ‘These things [on screen] aren’t cleaned properly at the factory. So therefore the tubes can’t fit in properly and there are hundreds out there that are leaking.’

Elizabeth Shakwane is tired of mopping up. Her geyser was installed about three months ago, but the water is still cold.’

Elizabeth Shakwane (Alex resident): ‘And when it is raining, all rain comes inside my house. I can’t even use the light in the bathroom because of the water.’

Apart from the cold water, every time Elizabeth turns the tap on, outside water gushes from the seal – just as Joe diagnosed – sending water pouring over the edge of the roof, and inside, flooding her bathroom.

But leaks are only part of the story according to roofing engineer Mike Newham.

Mike Newham: ‘The whole system is sitting on that wooden beam [on screen].’

Since 2013 it’s become law to provide a supporting beam.

Mike (Roofing engineer): ‘Let me put it to you this way: if you took a 44 gallon drum of water, the 200 litre drum of water, and you hung it from that beam there with a chain or rope, and you filled it with water, would you be happy to stand underneath that drum of water?’

But SASSA haven’t gone back to add a beam to their previous installations.

Mike: ‘The loads here need to be distributed a lot better across this roof. This roof has not been designed for it and I believe the roof needs to be strengthened quite fast.’

Lizzie says she has phoned four times.

Elizabeth: ‘They keep on saying, ‘We are coming, we are coming.”


Elizabeth: ‘Nobody came!’

But Chris says their quality control is working.

Chris: ‘The system is working, Bongani. The processes are working. If there is an issue on site we will rectify that.’

So can City Power confidently call their project a success?

Eunice: ‘It’s just a waste of money because these geysers don’t work, so they must come and take it out. There is no use for us here.’



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