Power to the Powerful in South Africa, but the People also have Power Patrick Bond

It’s a criminal gang,’ announced Jeff Radebe, the African National Congress (ANC) minister of public enterprises, at a December (2001) press conference. He was blasting activists of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) for their ‘Operation Khanyisa!’–reconnect the power! — campaign.

Over six months, more than 3,000 families had their electricity supplies illegally switched back on, after being left in darkness when they couldn’t afford to pay their enormous monthly bills. SECC volunteers risk electrification to do the work, and charge their neighbors nothing for the service.

Radebe, ironically, is a leading member of the SA Communist Party. In May 1999, when Thabo Mbeki was elected president, Radebe was mandated to privatise and commercialise Pretoria’s largest parastatal companies.

The Soweto confrontation was not his first brush with activists who brand him a sell-out. In August, he used similar language to scorn the 2-million member Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which embarked on a two-day national strike against the planned privatisation of electricity, telecommunications and transport. Mbeki and Radebe were furious because the strike distracted attention from the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, which opened in the South African port city of Durban the following day.

The most important South African parastatal, and the fourth largest non-petroleum power company in the world, is the Electricity Supply Commission–still known by its Afrikaans acronym, Eskom. It proudly claims to be one of the New South Africa’s success stories, having provided electricity to more than 300,000 households each year. Yet many tens of thousands cannot afford the full-cost-recovery policy that Pretoria’s minerals and energy ministry adopted in 1998.

The neoliberal policy of cutting those who cannot afford their bills was especially unfortunate, because virtually all black South Africans were denied Eskom’s services until the early 1980s due to apartheid racism. Even $100 million worth of World Bank loans to Pretoria for expanding Eskom’s grid between 1951 and 1966 explicitly left out all black neighborhoods, and is one reason that local activists demand reparations from the Bank.

The townships were, as a result, perpetually filthy because of coal and wood soot. In spite of the limited success of the roll-out, Eskom has become an even bigger target of dissent. Having fired more than 40,000 of its 85,000 workers during the early 1990s, thanks to mechanisation and overcapacity, the utility tried to outsource and corporatise several key operations in recent years, drawing the ire of workers. The metalworkers and mineworkers unions have been told that while electricity generation rights will be sold, Eskom’s transmission and distribution will remain state-owned. The South African cabinet is expected to approve the restructuring programme in February. But unions remain worried that further commercialisation will kill yet more employment, in an economy that has lost more than a million formal sector jobs since the early 1990s.

Moreover, Eskom gets sustained heat from environmentalists who complain that its massive coal-burning plants still do not have enough sulphur-scrubbing equipment. Alternative renewable energy investments, especially given the country’s abundant solar and wind power, have been negligible, compared to the tens of millions of dollars Eskom is spending to develop a prototype pebble-bed nuclear reactor, alongside a British partner which has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

The South African utility also relies upon controversial hydropower from Mozambique’s huge Cahorra Bassa Dam, whose Portuguese operators claimed in early January that the $0.003 per kiloWatt hour that Eskom was paying represented price extortion (Sowetans pay nearly ten times that amount for each retail kWh). Because the transmission lines from the dam go through South Africa’s eastern province before returning to the Mozambican capital of Maputo, the huge hydroelectricity consumption of that city’s Mozal aluminium furnace comes from Eskom. Mozambique must buy the processed electricity back, in US$ (having sold it to South Africa in the local SA currency, rands). The price is far in excess of what it would pay if it received electricity direct from Cahorra Bassa, and didn’t have to rely on geographic circumstances forged during the early 1970s colonial period when Portugal and Pretoria collaborated to keep blacks out of power. As a result, Mozambique is considering adding two more dams below Cahorra Bassa on the Zambezi River, which environmentalists are also protesting.

Indeed, it is the residual aura of apartheid-era power that so many South African consumers object to. The most prominent critic is Trevor Ngwane, who was formerly an ANC councillor for Soweto, until the ruling party expelled him in 1999 for opposing Johannesburg’s privatisation strategy. Says Ngwane, ‘We believe that the drive to privatise–by milking more from the poor–seemed to instill in Eskom the most anti-social, anti-environmental strategies. We also believe that the tide has turned, internationally, against privatisation. “Renationalisation” is now a popular sentiment.’ Ngwane has been central to not only the SECC’s success, but to a provincial and national Anti-Privatisation Forum that will serve as the main activist hosts for protesters at the upcoming Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. Known as ‘Rio+10,’ the August 26 – September 4 conference will be the world’s largest-ever conference, with 193 heads of state and 63,000 delegates expected.

Nearby, people will still be without electricity. Soweto, the 2-million resident township outside Johannesburg, will always be known for its Spirit of ’76’ when 1,000 students protesting Afrikaans-language education were killed in the 1976 uprising, which radicalised a generation of anti-apartheid activists. In December, Radebe and an allied community network, the SA National Civic Organisation, ventured to the historic Orlando Hall to try to persuade residents that they should put their Eskom payment boycott behind them, and repay half their arrears plus make regular payments.

Ngwane says that Operation Khanyisa worked, for last October, Eskom was sufficiently intimidated that it announced it would no longer disconnect those who couldn’t pay: ‘People’s Power was responsible for Eskom’s U-turn. We mobilised tens of thousands of Sowetans in active protests over the past year. We established professional and intellectual credibility for our critique of Eskom, even collaborating on a major Wits University study. We demonstrated at the houses of the mayor, Amos Masondo, and local councillors, and in the spirit of non-violent civil disobedience, we went so far as to disconnect the electricity supplies of the mayor and councillors to give them a taste of their own medicine.’

But having been branded ‘criminals,’ Ngwane expects tough ANC repression prior to the potentially embarrassing United Nations meeting. After Eskom partially caved, the SECC were featured last November as popular heroes on the front page of the Washington Post and on CNN international television news, as well as in the South African media. That, in turn, irritated Radebe, Eskom and the neoliberal power-block in Pretoria. Eskom’s Jacob Maroga told the Post that ‘There are clearly customers who don’t have the capacity to pay. But there isalso this culture of nonpayment in Soweto where customers can afford to pay but they prioritise other consumptive spending. We need to deal with that.’

‘Nonsense,’ says Ngwane, ‘The people who can’t pay the high costs of electricity genuinely can’t afford to, and Eskom’s billing is so erratic that no one really trusts the company to tell them what is owed.’ He ridicules the ANC for having promised a lifeline amount of free electricity in the 2000 municipal elections, where Ngwane failed to win a council seat running as an independent.

‘We are lucky, as South Africa’s social movements, to have Rio+10 here in August this year,’ he says, promising that a similar humiliation to the Durban Anti-Racism conference awaits the government, if they continue privatising and cutting services.

But Pretoria watches warily. According to a report in Business Day newspaper last August, Part of the [ANC] strategy–championed by trade And industry minister Alec Erwin, transport minister Dullah Omar and Public enterprises minister Jeff Radebe–was to seek to caution Cosatu members against possible hijacking of their strike by outside elements such as those protesting at World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings.’

Ngwane was featured in an April 2000 film popular amongst critics of globalisation–‘Two Trevors go to Washington’–where he led street protests against the Bretton Woods Institutions’ spring meetings, which simultaneously were presided over by that year’s chair of the IMF/WB Board of Governors, the conservative South African finance minister Trevor Manuel.

The dreadlocked Soweto activist smiles. ‘Radebe’s threats are an attempt at divide-and-rule. He is trying to isolate our organisation, and to neutralise Cosatu so as to break the unity of the community and unions. But the boycott of Eskom will continue.’

[Source: Multinational Monitor, Feb 2002]