Eskom: Time to Support Appropriation from Below

By Richard Pithouse · 28 Jan 2010

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Picture credit: World Economic Forum
Picture credit: World Economic Forum

The fiasco at Eskom has been oscillating between tragedy and farce at such a rate that it’s become difficult to tell them apart. No one in their right mind is likely to disagree that Eskom, an institution that should serve the public good, has been captured by an avaricious elite and turned into a vampiric excrescence on our society. In the wake of Jacob Maroga’s incredible demand for an R85 million golden handshake even parliament has felt the need to pressurise the cabinet to end the ‘looting’ at parastatals.

But whatever steps are taken to address the fiasco it seems clear enough that much of the price for the extravagant folly at Megawatt Park will be paid by ordinary people. And ordinary people will, of course, have no say in how the deal goes down. 

The National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) public hearings into tariff increases were, as mandated public participation exercises usually are in South Africa, entirely closed to any meaningful public engagement. At the Midrand hearings representatives from Earthlife and the Anti-Privatisation Forum were locked out of the venue by security guards and then assaulted and arrested by the police. The charges of public violence were dropped the next day in what has become a standard practice across the country in which the state misuses the power of arrest as an instant punishment for taking democracy seriously.

Already there are many people who have a legal electricity connection but have to get up at four in morning to chop wood to heat water and cook food because they just can’t afford to pay for electricity along with schools fees, transport, medical costs and all the rest. Under these conditions unlawful reconnections are a popular strategy to sustain access to electricity. The practice is ubiquitous, but the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) first organised it and give it a public political expression.

Shack dwellers, many of whom have not been connected to the grid by the state, also appropriate electricity. This is not, at all, unique to South Africa. On the contrary it is one of the universal features of shack life linking up Lagos, Istanbul, Bombay, Rio and Johannesburg as nodes in a decidedly international mode of urban life.

Neither Eskom’s ‘izinyoka’ campaign that tried to present the people who install self organised electricity connections as snakes or the often violent raids of police and the private security companies contracted to municipalities have had any success in teaching people to accept that they do not deserve to have electricity. The police raids often extend beyond ripping out self organised electricity connections and it’s not unusual for them to include the confiscation of all electrical appliances, with DVD players seeming to be most at risk, on the grounds that they must be stolen.

But as the police disconnect, people reconnect and as the police steal people’s equipment they replace it. In some cases the police go through periods of disconnecting daily and so people disconnect themselves every morning and reconnect themselves every evening.

When middle class residents inform on their poor neighbours it has become common for shack dwellers to respond to police raids by disconnecting their middle class neighbours en masse – usually at suppertime. Sometimes an explanatory note is left at the electricity box. Once this has been done three or four times an understanding is usually reached to live and let live.

The reality is that the attempt to stop unlawful connections has about as much chance of success as influx control had in the 1980s or, for that matter, as attempts to stop middle class people sharing music and software.

In some cases self-organised connections are arranged in a haphazard and individualised way and while some people are careful to use and to bury properly insulated wire, others are not. There are real risks when open wires are left dangling in dense settlements and people have been killed. But people are also killed in shack fires and when connections are arranged in a carefully organised and safe way by a well organised community organisation or social movement they can be done very safely and keep whole communities safe from fire.

Following the pioneering struggle of the SECC, popular organisations and movements around the country refer to the work of organising the appropriation of electricity collectively, safely and without profit as ‘Operation Khanyisa’.

It is not unusual for the media to respond to self-organised electricity connections with a sometimes racialised hostility and paranoia bordering on hysteria. Following propagandistic statements from the police and politicians, cable theft and self-organised electricity connections are routinely conflated even though it is quite obvious that these are two entirely different practices organised by different people for different purposes. 

Deaths from shack fires are routinely ascribed to drunkenness rather than an absence of electricity, but when connections are made recklessly, this is seized upon to delegitimize all self organised connections - including those undertaken with exemplary care. It is regularly, asserted, as if it were a fact, that all self organised connections are made for payment. And, predictably, when Eskom’s executive looting, poor planning and massive subsidies to smelters leads to load shedding some newspapers are quick to blame ‘theft’ by the poor for the crisis.

A life without electricity is one in which shack fires are a constant threat, cell phones can’t be charged and basic daily tasks become time consuming, repetitive and dangerous. It also leaves people feeling structurally excluded from access to a modern life. There is no doubt that a critical mass of people are not willing to accept that they should be consigned to systemic exclusion and that they see the activity of appropriating electricity as a fundamentally necessary, decent and social activity.

The social definition of theft is something that changes over time and that is understood differently from different perspectives. In the words of a famous old English poem “The law locks up the man or woman/ Who steals the goose from off the common/ But leaves the greater villain loose/ Who steals the common from off the goose.” Who is really at fault when the boss of a public utility has entirely fatuous personal expenses that run into the millions and some of the ‘snakes’ who have connected themselves up to the wires that carry the means to heat and light past them have nothing more than a couple of slices of white bread and a cup of sweet tea to cook up for supper?

In its original sense privatisation was about the process of social exclusion via private appropriation rather than the question of whether or not an institution was owned by the state or private power. In contemporary South Africa, state ownership of key organisations is producing a degree of social exclusion and private enrichment every bit as perverse as that produced by private ownership. It makes perfect sense to hold Eskom and MTN in the same contempt.

As exclusion deepens in the wake of the Eskom crisis, people will respond with increasing popular appropriation.

For as long as Eskom continues to see public utilities as an opportunity for private profit, and electricity as a commodity for private consumption rather than a common good, civil society should invoke the tradition of civil disobedience and support communities and popular movements to resist state repression while they organise to appropriate electricity on a non-commodified, safe and carefully disciplined basis.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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ns
30 Jan

Public Owned Utilities and Strategic Industries

It is as clear as day: Telkom, Eskom, and all other public owned utilities, goods and serives need to remain in the hands of the state if we are to achieve our developmental goals and national growth that will benefit the people who have been disadvantaged - to put it mildly and in current digestable lingo.

Sasol need to be heavily regulated in order that its products meet our developmental goals and assists in giving sa industry and agriculture an advantage on world markets. This will result in increased local investmet and job creation.

The debacle of selling Iscor is a case in point when politicians rush to sell the state assets for short-term cash flow needs. Now local industries are faced with buying steel as if it is made 10 thousand kilometers away with labour that is 10 times more expensive that SA labour! Steel is a strategic industry and should return to the fold of the state. Mines could be also heaviy regulated in order to derive more income for the state to meets its development obligation to its citizens.

Mines other mineral extraction companies should carry the bulk of the Eskom tariff increases. This will force these companies to add value to gold, platinum and other minerals and not depend entirely on the export of our mineral resources. This will develop local industries and more importantly, ceate jobs.

The question that begs an answer is this: if I as an ordinary citizen, can see the merits of this type of policy, whose agenda is the state, with its army of consultants and experts, following?

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