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
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.'