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Victims of apartheid suffer ‘energy racism’

Research has shown fewer than 40% of South Africans had access to electricity as late as 1987, seven years before the transition to ANC rule. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso African News Agency(ANA)

Research has shown fewer than 40% of South Africans had access to electricity as late as 1987, seven years before the transition to ANC rule. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso African News Agency(ANA)

Published Apr 29, 2022

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CAPE TOWN - Black working-class communities are bearing the burden of the electricity crisis, new research which explores “energy racism” has found.

The report titled ‘Energy Racism: The Electricity Crisis in South Africa’ by the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice (CSRP), which is part of the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), found that strategies have been developed to “rob the victims of apartheid of their access to a safe, clean, reliable, and affordable supply of energy”.

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The research was conducted in the black working-class township of Soweto and sought to explore the experiences, responses and solutions of members of this community to the energy crisis in South Africa.

Researchers explain that South Africa’s energy system is based on the exploitation of cheap black labour. Historically, black workers provided the cheap labour which powered capitalist industrial development in South Africa. The provision of a reliable source of energy for this development, in the form of electricity, produced from burning coal, also relied heavily on black labour. Black workers dug out the coal and were key in laying out the electricity pylons for the then-state company which was called ESCom/EVKom1. But in urban townships and rural villages where black people lived, electricity was hardly provided for individual household consumption.

Fewer than 40% of South Africans had access to electricity as late as 1987, seven years before the transition to ANC rule.

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“The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) promised electrification for all, but the privatisation of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy arrested this project.

“Privatisation fostered a slowdown in the electrification process, less amperage for working-class areas, and cut-offs for non-payment. The neo-liberal principles of ‘user must pay’, ‘cost-reflective tariffs’, opposition to a presumed ‘culture of entitlement’ and so on, are behind the myriad ways that the black working class has been forced to pay for the country to cope with the downward pressure on spending on supply at the same time as access was expanding.

“Today, we find ourselves in the era of load shedding and Eskom’s debt crisis. The same working class is required to use less energy and to suffer ‘load reduction’. The latter is a system of semi-planned power failures that target black working-class areas,” the report reads.

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The report also showed that load reduction predominantly affects townships, with the power going off anywhere from two hours to an entire day.

“We found that it causes substantial hardships for the whole household when there is no electricity, from pensioners shivering in the dark to students barred from remote learning. The disruption to people’s domestic systems, health, time and livelihoods systemically disadvantages people at the same time as it reflects their systemic disadvantage, rooted in the history of racial capitalism.”

Researchers also found decaying infrastructure which is not expanding capacity with increased demand and people reported long delays in repairs in townships and faulty components not being replaced.

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Some solutions offered by residents included stopping the installation of prepaid meters and give residents a flat rate, reduce the Eskom salaries, or building another power station and introducing competition.

Researchers concluded: “The electricity crisis is part of a bigger crisis in the economy and society. Alternate technologies for generating electricity exist but we need to start thinking about alternate institutions and priorities for society. We also need to understand the social and power relations webbed around electricity provision, such as the fact that it is currently embedded in the extraction of minerals from Africa.”

Cape Times

Related Topics:

Eskom

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