POWER utility Eskom and Soweto residents are set to clash over plans to get home owners of one of the country’s largest townships to start paying for electricity.

Soweto’s debt to Eskom, which grew to R3.6bn this year from R3.2bn last year, is more than any other municipal area in the country.

The utility plans to invest about R216m installing prepaid systems in Soweto this year to arrest the culture of nonpayment for services.

Eskom said last week it would instal prepaid units in about 20,000 households in Orlando West, Zola, Meadowlands and Diepkloof. But the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), which has been mobilising the community against the installation of prepaid meters, said last week it would not support Eskom’s project because the company should not be charging for providing basic services. It believed the state should be paying for electricity supply.

"We will fight," said SECC secretary Dannie Mogotsi. "Electricity is a right, not a privilege.

"How does Eskom expect people to afford electricity when many of the residents do not have jobs and rely on the income of pensioners to survive?"

Of the 180,000 houses that Eskom supplies in Soweto, only about 16% paid last year.

Eskom said illegal connections, which enable some households to use electricity without paying, are a common problem in Soweto.

Widespread power outages in the township in the past two month were blamed on system overloads.

According to Eskom spokesman Andrew Etzinger, some households had "numerous" tenant shacks in the backyard also connecting to the grid. But the power utility was not informed about this.

Eskom’s previous attempts to migrate Sowetan s to prepaid power were met with fierce opposition from local communities.

Last year, the SECC supported pensioners of Pimville and Klipspruit in their march to the ward councillor’s office to hand over a memorandum of protest against prepaid systems for water and electricity.

While a consultation process may help alleviate some opposition to the prepaid meters, tensions may flare up if Eskom expects households to acknowledge their debt. This happened in Orlando last year.