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August 30, 2002
Guerrilla Technicians Challenge the Privatization of South Africa's Public Resources

As soon as Eskom cuts off the electricity, SECC volunteers switch it back on.
Soweto, South Africa

To stand on Elizabeth Ndlovu’s front porch, on a small hill in Soweto, is to see the township in its immensity: miles upon miles of boxy concrete houses, stubby lawns, a mess of winding streets laid out at random under the wide African sky. In the middle of it all stand the twin towers of a coal burning plant, soot-stained, now derelict. They can be seen from just about anywhere in the township, a reminder of the bad old days and of the white regime that placed them in Soweto’s center to supply its gold mines and wealthy suburbs with cheap electricity.

For Ndlovu, the bad days never really ended. In 1997, amid a collapsing economy, she lost her job at a handbag store in downtown Johannesburg’s decaying business district. Her husband, a laborer, had been laid off the year before. The debt began to pile up.

Worse, Ndlovu’s electricity bill had gone up fourfold, a result of restructuring at Eskom, the state-owned electricity company. She paid as much of her bill as she could each month, but by the end of 1999 Eskom had cut her off and, in a scorched-earth operation designed to deter illegal reconnections, ripped the metering box and electric cables from her wall. For the next two years, she made do with a smoky, dangerous paraffin stove while trying to pay down the debt. “I was in the darkness for so long,” says the sturdy 43-year-old matron.

Then, last October, a neighbor told Ndlovu about the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC). A phone call later, SECC member Phillip Matseoane turned up at her cinderblock house, carrying his toolbox and some heavy-duty cable. Matseoane went to work at once, connecting his cable directly to the power lines in the ground. Within a few hours, Ndlovu was back on the grid. Matseoane only charged her for the cable. He says, “It gives me a lot of pleasure to see them say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a piece of my life back.’ ”

A loose collective of guerrilla technicians, union workers and veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle, the SECC’s all-volunteer force has been crisscrossing Soweto’s neighborhoods for almost two years, reconnecting, by its count, 150,000 homes since the beginning of 2001—roughly the same number Eskom has cut off. “As soon as Eskom switches off, we switch on,” says Bongani Lubisi, one of the group’s chief technicians. So far, its game of cat-and-mouse, dubbed Operation Khanyisa (township Zulu for “to light”), has been successful. Earlier this year, Eskom announced a temporary suspension of cut-offs in the township of 1.5 million.

In the process, the group has given voice to a growing sentiment among ordinary South Africans that the governing African National Congress (ANC) has betrayed its progressive roots, and that many of its policies—the World Bank-supported privatization of state-run electricity and water distribution, in particular—have increased their suffering while enriching elites and international corporations.

The handover of these inefficient, apartheid-era state utilities was supposed to bring electricity and water to millions of new users efficiently and cheaply. Instead, as an emphasis on “full cost recovery” replaced the flat rates South Africans were used to, prices skyrocketed—up to 400 percent, in some cases. In the Johannesburg area, Suez, a French consortium, holds the biggest private water contract in the world, which has led to higher rates and thousands of cutoffs. And at Eskom, which is preparing for at least a partial sell-off, officials say the electricity disconnections are meant to demonstrate a commitment to the bottom line.

Critics, however, say that by ignoring the well-documented benefits that universal electricity and water confer—such as greater health and increased economic activity—privatization’s promise has been wasted. “They don’t calculate these benefits, they just look at costs,” says Patrick Bond, a professor at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand and co-director of its Municipal Services Project. “The whole concept of public good evaporates [with] privatization.”

As a result, stories like Ndlovu’s are increasingly common. Cape Town’s privately run water company has cut off some 100,000 township homes, sparking riots and birthing radical groups of clandestine plumbers. (The SECC, though the most vocal opponent of the ANC’s privatization policies, is by no means the only one.) New water policies in the mostly rural KwaZulu Natal province forced poor villagers to get their water from polluted rivers, setting off a cholera outbreak that killed almost 300 people and infected more than 120,000. And in the townships surrounding Nelspruit, in the steamy, lush lowlands near the Mozambique border, families hoard water in bathtubs and buckets, in preparation for the water cutoffs that arrive every few days.

Eight years after apartheid’s end, the “struggle mentality,” as activists call it, has returned. The difference now is the enemy: the ANC.

On a hot, dry summer morning in Diepkloof—a sprawling Soweto neighborhood of modest, densely packed homes and cracked asphalt—about 150 people gather by a shuttered storefront for an SECC meeting, young and old alike sheltering under umbrellas from the sun. The rally starts with singing, clapping and toyi toying, a Zulu protest dance that formed an integral part of any anti-apartheid rally.

Lubisi, the chief technician, warms up the crowd, speaking Zulu with flashes of English for emphasis. “They say you must pay for what is a basic human right,” he yells. “We say no, never! Viva SECC!”

“Viva!” echoes the crowd.

Formed in May 2000, the SECC wears its left-wing politics proudly. Members call each other “comrade”; many, harking back to the gloriously remembered past of the black liberation movements, still call themselves Communists.

A group of tsotsis (township speak for “thugs”) drinks beer and glowers at the rally from the other side of the narrow road. I’m standing near the back of the crowd, a conspicuous and presumably wealthy outsider, and I’m pulled toward the front for safety. Crime has risen with the unemployment rate, which now hovers, officially, at 30 percent. Unofficially, it is far higher.

During the question-and-answer period near the end of the rally, two local men—one wearing a threadbare Nelson Mandela T-shirt—begin yelling, accusing the SECC of betraying the ANC. The crowd soon shouts them down and, outnumbered, the men depart. Five minutes later, however, a convoy of police trucks turns the corner and comes to a rolling halt next to the rally, disgorging a dozen policemen. As the rest provide cover, a few leveling their shotguns at the jeering, angry crowd, two or three of the cops wade in and drag out a smirking teenager. The police are still seen as an occupying army here.

With its core constituency in the townships surrounding Johannesburg—among the most sophisticated and politically active in the country—the SECC has a powerful base. And its message is resonating, as South Africans, angry that hoped-for economic benefits haven’t followed the political freedoms they gained in 1994, begin to question their leaders’ policies. Like many black South Africans, Elizabeth Ndlovu speaks of “before” and “after” 1994’s historic elections. “Before voting, we were paying 50 rand [roughly $10 in 1994] for a month of electricity,” she says. “But after the vote, sometimes a monthly bill is 400 rand [roughly $40 in 2001].”

In a country where 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, that is a lot of money. “Government says, ‘Be patient, change is difficult. Change doesn’t come overnight,’ ” adds Virginia Setshedi, deputy chairwoman of the SECC and a law student at University of Witwatersrand. “But for them it did—now they are driving big cars and living in the suburbs. For us, everything is deteriorating.”

Anger is fed by the conviction that electricity is a basic human right. A Constitutional Court ruling in 2000 suggested that a “lifeline” amount of electricity and water must be provided for free. Later that year, campaigning ANC officials promised free water and electricity to voters. However, free services—where they have been implemented—have amounted to just 10 percent of the average family’s monthly electricity needs. Matseoane says: “Apartheid is done. This is supposed to be payback time. Instead, we got privatization.”

Comparisons between the ANC and the apartheid government are “inevitable,” says Percy Hintzen of the University of California. For President Thabo Mbeki’s government, caught between its storied past and the dictates of international money markets—and faced with the AIDS epidemic, an appalling crime rate, sky-high unemployment and a crushing backlog of those in need of housing—the backlash was probably just a matter of time. “The ANC’s legitimacy was based on these impossibly high expectations, which it can never deliver on,” Hintzen explains. “The ANC said, ‘When we come in, everything will change,’ but it didn’t. They are in a trap.”

Government supporters note that the ANC has connected more than 2.5 million homes to the electricity grid since 1994 (less than 40 percent of African homes had electricity at liberation), with similar strides in other sectors. The ANC has gone on the offensive, questioning the SECC’s motives and patriotism. “The so-called Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, through its Operation Khanyisa, has become part of [a] criminal culture,” ANC Public Enterprises Minister Jeff Radebe said at a November news conference. “The representatives of this committee have proven that they will do anything, including telling lies to the community, in order to realize its political ends. Such people cannot be regarded as the genuine representatives of our people. “

Confrontations between the SECC and the government have escalated recently. In Soweto, local ANC councilors have barred the SECC from holding meetings in most town halls (hence the street-corner rally I attended). And during the past year, SECC leaders and supporters have been arrested at protests outside Eskom offices and the homes of various ANC officials. A protest this spring outside the home of Johannesburg’s deputy mayor ended when his bodyguard opened fire on a rock-throwing crowd.

Soweto residents complain of inconsistent and outrageous billing: Ndlovu’s bills show that her meter readings continued to rise, along with her debt, even after Eskom tore the meter off her wall. Another Sowetan, Lindiwe Radebe, shows me a bill for almost $2,000—an inconceivable amount, given that Radebe doesn’t have any electrical appliances. We talk sitting on ripped-out minibus seats in an otherwise empty, bare-walled room. In the kitchen, a child kills ants next to an ancient pot-bellied stove. “I don’t know how [the bill] could be so large,” muses Radebe, a slow-moving, heavyset 38-year-old. “I don’t have anything that uses electricity.”

“There are billing inaccuracies,” concedes Eskom spokeswoman Susan Chapman. “Our systems are not up to scratch. [But] inaccurate bills cannot be looked at in isolation. In some areas [of the townships], Eskom wasn’t allowed in. So what did we do? We estimated. These no-go areas are opening up now. We anticipate another 18 months before Soweto is stabilized.”

When asked about the SECC, Chapman at first refuses to comment, then says with a touch of irritation: “We deal with valid stakeholders only—not them. We never engage with them.”

Collectively, Soweto owes Eskom more than $100 million, and almost 90 percent of households are in arrears, according to a survey last year. Much of this debt dates back to the boycotts of the apartheid era, when residents refused to pay their bills in an attempt to undermine the apartheid regime. Though Eskom scrapped perhaps half of the apartheid debt, it insists that Soweto pay back the rest. Late last year, Eskom proposed a solution, offering to suspend half of each resident’s debt—100 percent for pensioners—if they would agree not to connect illegally and to pay back the rest of their arrears within 12 months. Though the SECC objected—noting that the debt would merely be put off, not canceled—thousands of debtors signed the agreement.

Critics say Eskom’s solution fails to address the real issue: The exorbitant cost of electricity for township dwellers. Black townships pay, on average, 30 percent more for electricity than their white suburban neighbors, who buy in greater quantities. Setshedi says of the plan: “It does nothing for the future. Even if you pay all of the money you owe, it’s going to come back. You’ll then accumulate the very same arrears, because the affordability is not being addressed.”

Despite Eskom’s suspension of cut-offs, the SECC is busier than ever. In fact, the SECC has usurped many of Eskom’s duties in Soweto, doing routine maintenance work and even connecting those who have never had electricity. Now, there is also Operation Vulamanzi (“Water”) for water cut-offs, and Operation Bueli-Ekhaya (“Go Back Home”) for repossessed homes.

Following the rally in Diepkloof, Matseoane and Lubisi head out on their rounds. First stop is the home of Lydia Letebele, a 41-year-old with a moon face and a bright yellow head-wrap. The problem: Eskom technicians had run the power cable from the house next door along the side of Letebele’s home and above her front door, when it could have run directly into the underground power line. The exposed cable is potentially dangerous, and Letebele tells me that an Eskom technician refused to fix it. She then asked a private electrician, who told her the job would cost $3,000.

“This is an easy one,” Matseoane says, chiding Eskom’s shoddy workmanship. As a bonus, he tells Letebele, “We’re going to remove this box entirely, so the power goes directly into the house and Eskom can’t monitor it.”

A few twists with the pliers and screwdriver, and the metering box is off, its place between the cables held by a piece of piping. Next, the superfluous cable—about 30 feet long—is stripped off the side of the house and coiled in the trunk of Matseoane’s car. Lubisi says excitedly, “We’ll connect six houses with that.”

Chris Smith is a freelance journalist and photographer who has worked in Africa, the Middle East and at home in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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