Re: [OPE] Electricity solutions: decommodify (by stealing)

From: Patrick Bond <>
Date: Tue Oct 28 2008 - 11:21:46 EDT

Alejandro Agafonow wrote:
> We can use a surcharge penalizing electricity consumption over average
> in very category we devise for classifying consumers: industrial,
> residential, etc. This is a political decision that might complement
> quasi-market.

That's the plan the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee embarked upon,
but first they had to liberate electricity from the meter box:

Decommodifying electricity in post-apartheid Johannesburg
By Patrick Bond and Peter McInnes
in H.Leitner, J.Peck, E.Sheppard (Eds), Contesting Neoliberalism: The
Urban Frontier, New York, Guildford Press, 2007, pp.157-178.

1. Post-apartheid neoliberalism
Apartheid’s formal urban system was meant to have been dissolved by
April 1994, when Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress won
South Africa’s first democratic elections. But residential segregation
and the gender-discriminatory migrant labor system have persisted.
Economic inequality has widened, with attendant spatial implications.
National elites and urban managers attempted to tame social unrest and
lubricate the transition from racial apartheid to class apartheid. Yet
at the lower rungs of the society, the early and mid-2000s witnessed
hundreds of intense contestations of power, including electric power.
    This chapter reviews South African neoliberalism (Section 1) in part
by focusing on the electricity sector (Section 2) and possibly the most
famous case of an urban anti-capitalist protest group in contemporary
Africa: the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) (Section 3). The
Sowetans campaigned for access to basic services beginning in 2000,
illegally reconnecting electricity to thousands of households
disconnected due to poverty. As we write, in mid-2005, the SECC is mired
in ideological strife and interorganizational competition with another
socialist community movement in Soweto, and may suffer the classical
problem of a downturn in social movement activity after some notable
victories. Nevertheless, the SECC’s militancy, analytical vision and
successful reconnection tactics catalyzed similar activism across South
Africa as well as brought substantial international admiration, and its
socialist manifesto captured the imagination of anti-capitalists of all
stripes. No matter the SECC’s fate, the label ‘ultraleft’ given to it by
president Thabo Mbeki and his Moscow-trained colleagues in 2002
indicates an enduring record of struggle.
    Before considering the rise of the SECC in the context of urban
neoliberal public policy, we ask a broader question about the new ruling
elite: ‘were they pushed or did they jump?’ The ANC adopted free-market
macroeconomic and microdevelopment policies even before 1994. The South
African case is not so unusual, as there were many democratic
transitions from the 1970s-90s that allowed popular oppositional
movements access to power, but only under restricted conditions known as
‘low-intensity democracy’, with the new regimes constrained by debt
repayment and neoliberal policy implementation. These ranged across
Southern Europe, the cone of South America, Eastern Europe, East Asia
and parts of Africa.
    In South Africa’s case, because of a broader structural crisis in
capitalism dating to the 1970s, white elites finally agreed to share
power during the late 1980s. This arrangement facilitated a new round of
capital accumulation and dampened the class and community struggles that
were making life unprofitable and uncomfortable. By 1994, a small group
of leaders dominated strategic discussions in the country’s mass popular
movements - the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), many of the NGOs,
civic associations, women’s and student/youth groups, and even
church-based liberation organizations. While preventing pressure from
below emerging into a full-fledged challenge to the ANC government, the
leaders promoted a ‘corporatist’ (i.e., elite-pacting) political style
which further demobilized, disoriented and disillusioned the base. The
results included both decreasing electoral turnouts and the decay of the
mass organizations’ branch structures, at the same time that the
objective socio-economic conditions of the majority worsened considerably.
    Soaring unemployment was the government’s biggest single failure, by
all accounts. Falling tariffs on imported industrial machinery allowed
automation to kill hundreds of thousands of jobs, while many more tens
of thousands in vulnerable industries were eliminated thanks to imported
consumer goods from East Asia (Altman 2003). Setting aside agriculture,
the number of formal sector jobs in South Africa in 2004 was less than
the same figure two decades earlier. During the 1990s, large employment
declines occurred in mining (47%), manufacturing (20%), and even the
public sector (10%) (Nattrass 2003:142). Officially, the country’s
unemployment rate rose from 16% in 1995 to 31.2% in 2003 (Statistics
South Africa 2001a, 2003:iii). Adding to that figure the category of
‘frustrated job-seekers’ (i.e., those who have given up looking for
employment) raises the percentage unemployed to 42%. The rate for
African unemployment by this measure exceeded 50% in 2002, compared to
6.3% for whites (United Nations Development Programme 2004).
    In rural South Africa, the African women’s unemployment rate
(including those who have given up looking) rose to 54%, compared to 42%
for rural men (Gelb 2003:9). Substantive income-generation possibilities
for a huge share of the population – especially the women who
traditionally subsidized the migrant labor system – are nearly
non-existent, just as during apartheid. Indeed, the system of racial
oppression perfected in the middle of the 20th century was also,
primarily, a system of gender-based super-exploitation that made
possible migrant labor throughout the Southern African region. South
Africa’s urban capitalist managers designed a subsidy from the rural
areas so as to lower the cost of workers in the mines and factories.
Economic development was, according to the Chamber of Mines, dependent
upon this system. As a leading mine official testified to a government
commission in 1944, ‘The ability of the mines to maintain their native
labor force by means of tribal natives from the reserves at rates of pay
which are adequate for this migratory class of native, but inadequate in
practice for the detribalized urban native, is a fundamental factor of
the economy of the gold mining industry’ (cited in Wolpe 1972; see also
Legassick 1974 and O’Meara 1996). The migrant ‘tribal natives’ did not,
when they were young, require companies to pay their parents enough to
cover school fees, or pay taxes for government schools to teach workers’
children. When sick or disabled, those workers were often shipped back
to their rural homes until ready to work again. When the worker was
ready to retire, the employer typically left him a pittance, such as a
cheap watch, not a pension that allowed the elderly to survive in
dignity. From youth through to illness to old age, capitalists were let
off the hook. The subsidy covering child-rearing, recuperation and old
age was provided by rural African women. The central lesson from this
crucial aspect of apartheid was that capitalism systematically looted
the ‘bantustan’ areas, especially women, which supplied such a large
proportion of workers. The post-apartheid period is characterized by
insignificant structural changes in the migrant labor system and in
these power relations, and indeed some reversion to older tribalist
systems of patriarchy as a function of restored powers for traditional
    As even Statistics South Africa admits, what was amongst the world’s
worst income inequality rankings actually worsened after 1994. According
to an October 2002 report, in real terms, average black ‘African’
household income fell 19% from 1995-2000 (to the purchasing-power parity
level of $3,714/year), while white household income was up 15% (to
$22,600/year) (Statistics South Africa 2002). The ruling party’s
rebuttal is that major asset transfers mitigated the damage of worsening
income inequality, for example in household electricity: ‘There have
been around 3.8 million new electricity grid connections since 1994.
This means that the number of households with electricity had increased
from 32% to 70% by 2001’ (African National Congress 2003). Yet
disconnections of electricity (and water) were extreme problems for poor
people, and the connection statistics above simply ignored the fact that
millions of people were cut off for more than 45 days.
    The reason for the disconnection epidemic was obvious.
Notwithstanding deeper poverty, the South African government raised
household electricity and water prices dramatically from the mid-1990s.
By 2002, they accounted for 30% of the income of those households
earning less than $60 per month. One cause of higher municipal utility
prices was dramatic declines in central-local state subsidies designed
to cover operating/maintenance expenses during the 1990s (85% in real
terms, according to the Finance and Fiscal Commission). As a result, a
conservatively estimated ten million people were victims of electricity
disconnections. Pretoria’s national record of municipal ‘credit control’
statistics showed that 60% of the disconnections were not resolved
within six weeks (Bond 2000, 2002). That, in turn, confirmed that the
blame lay with genuine poverty, not the oft-alleged ‘culture of
non-payment’ as a hangover of anti-apartheid activism. Likewise, of 13
million given access to a fixed telephone line for the first time, ten
million were disconnected due to unaffordability. Naturally, the bulk of
suffering caused by the rescinding of vital state services was felt most
by women, the elderly and children.
    Ultimately these problems are the outcome of neoliberal capitalism,
but by and large, the state’s post-apartheid urban policies amplified
rather than counteracted the underlying dynamics of accumulation and
class division. These included the Housing White Paper (1994), the Water
and Sanitation White Paper (1994), the Urban Development Strategy
(1995), the Municipal Infrastructure Investment Framework (1997 and
2001), the Local Government White Paper (1998), and the Energy White
Paper (1998). The Urban Development Strategy articulated the familiar
mainstream relationship between globalization and cities: ‘Seen through
the prism of the global economy, our urban areas are single economic
units that either rise, or stagnate and fall together... South Africa’s
cities are more than ever strategic sites in a transnationalized
production system’ (Ministry of Reconstruction and Development
1995:17,41). An ‘Urban Regeneration Strategy’ was proposed by president
Thabo Mbeki’s office in 2000-01, but in spite of initial hype, it took
the form only of a description of discrete investment projects in
several underdeveloped nodes. A ‘Free Basic Services’ monthly package of
6000 liters of water and 50 kWh of electricity per household was offered
to many households from 2001, but it proved far too little, and if
anything, disconnections actually increased. Changes to the housing
policy were made in 2001 and 2004, providing a higher grant to subsidy
recipients with proven savings or sweat equity, to invest in
higher-quality structures. Rental policies also changed slightly.
Overall, though, the neoliberal orientation changed only marginally.
    South African state policy makers thus accepted the premise that
cities must be competitive units in the world economy first and
foremost, and that everything from design of the urban form to pricing
of municipal services must be based upon market principles. Subsidies
should be minimized so as not to distort market relationships. The
neoliberal philosophy of decentralization – namely, allowing
‘subsidiarity’ of service delivery so that more state activities could
be transferred to lower tiers - was reduced in practice to ‘unfunded
mandates’: more responsibilities with fewer resources. Electricity, so
long denied to the masses of black South Africans, explicitly reflects
the trends to inequality associated with urban neoliberalism.

2. ‘Cost-reflective’ electricity and Soweto disconnections
South Africa’s largest parastatal firm is the Electricity Supply
Commission, still known by its Afrikaans acronym, Eskom. Ben Fine and
Zav Rustomjee fix Eskom at the heart of the economy’s Minerals-Energy
Complex, a ‘system of accumulation’ encompassing mining,
petro-chemicals, metals and related activities which historically
accounted for around a quarter of GDP, and typically consumed 40% of all
electricity (Fine and Rustomjee 1996). By the mid-1980s, even the
isolated apartheid regime was not immune from international neoliberal
trends in the electricity sector. The 1986 White Paper on Energy Policy
called for the ‘highest measure of freedom for the operation of market
forces’, the involvement of the private sector, a shift to a
market-oriented system with a minimum of state control and involvement,
and deregulation of pricing, marketing and production (Charles Anderson
Associates 1994:12-13). In 1987 the government released a White Paper on
Privatization and Deregulation, declaring the objective of ‘a systematic
transfer of appropriate functions, activities or property from the
public sector where services, production and consumption can be
regulated more efficiently by the market’ (Republic of South Africa
    At the same time, however, electricity provision became increasingly
politicized, in part because of township payment boycotts. The sorts of
surreal energy problems South Africa faces in the twenty-first century
reflect the kinds of predictable contradictions accompanying a
transition from apartheid economic history to a contemporary electricity
pricing system all too often based on neoliberal market-policy for
households, but massive subsidies for big corporations, in one of the
world’s most unequal societies. Asked why cross-subsidization of
electricity prices to benefit the poor was not being seriously
considered, the leading infrastructure-services official in the
then-Department of Constitutional Development explained in 1996, ‘If we
increase the price of electricity to users like Alusaf [a major
aluminium exporter], their products will become uncompetitive and that
will affect our balance of payments’ (Mail and Guardian, 22 November
1996). (Alusaf pays approximately one tenth the price that retail
consumers do, and the ecological price of cheap power - both at the site
of production and in the coal-gathering and burning process - is not
factored in, which in turn contributes to South Africa’s extreme
culpability for global-warming and damage done to the citizenry and
economy through local pollution.)
Rising electricity prices across South African townships had a negative
impact during the late 1990s, evident in declining use of electricity
despite an increase in the number of connections. According to
Statistics South Africa (2001b:78-90), households using electricity for
lighting increased from 63.5% in 1995 to 69.8% in 1999. However,
households using electricity for cooking declined from 55.4% to 53.0%,
and households using electricity for heating dropped from 53.8% in 1995
to just 48.0% in 1999. The state agency conceded a significant link
between decreasing usage and the increasing price of electricity. Most
poor South Africans still rely for a large part of their lighting,
cooking and heating energy needs upon paraffin (with its burn-related
health risks), coal (with high levels of domestic household and
township-wide air pollution) and wood (with dire consequences for
deforestation). Women, traditionally responsible for managing the home,
are more affected by the high cost of electricity, and spend greater
time and resources searching for alternative energy.
Ecologically-sensitive energy sources, such as solar, wind and tidal,
have barely begun to be explored, notwithstanding the enormous damage
done by South Africa’s world-leading addiction to fossil-fuel
consumption (Bond and Dada 2005).
    Meanwhile, corporate South Africa suffered the opposite problem - an
embarrassment of energy riches - especially when terribly poor planning
at Eskom during the 1980s resulted in massive overcapacity. Defenders of
the big corporates argued, correctly, that they helped mop up the excess
capacity and could do so at off-peak hours, and also that low-volume
consumers, especially in townships, generate much larger administrative
costs per unit. As a result, Eskom and municipalities minimized
cross-subsidies that would charge big users more per unit (generating a
surplus) than those consuming a bare minimum (who are supplied at a
loss). The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) mandated
higher subsidies, but far stronger continuities from apartheid to
post-apartheid emerged thanks to neoliberal pricing principles and the
consequent policy of mass disconnections, preventing the widespread
redistribution required to make Eskom’s mass electrification feasible.
    Of course, it was the very lack of electrified households during the
early 1990s that accounted for Eskom’s success in providing new
connections. By the end of 2001, Eskom and the municipalities together
had made nearly four million household connections, including
farmworkers, at a cost to Eskom of $1.2 billion. The percentage of
households with access to electricity infrastructure increased to 70% at
the end of 2000. In urban areas, the percentage of households with
electricity infrastructure was 84%, with rural areas lagging behind at
50% (National Electricity Regulator 2001:14).
    To be sure, Eskom continued to be a target of criticism, especially
from environmentalists who complain that coal-burning plants lack
sufficient sulphur scrubbing equipment and that alternative renewable
energy investments, especially in solar and wind power, have been
negligible. Moreover, labor opposition mounted. Having fired more than
40,000 of its 85,000 employees during the early 1990s, thanks to
mechanization and overcapacity, the utility tried to outsource and
corporatize several key operations, resulting in periodic national
anti-privatization strikes by the trade union federation.
    Regulation of Eskom and the municipal distributors was not
successful, from the standpoint of mass electricity needs. This is
partly because government policy has increasingly imposed
‘cost-reflective tariffs’, as a 1995 document insisted. In yet another
indication of neoliberalism trumping environmental sustainability, the
1995 energy policy argued that ‘Fuelwood is likely to remain the primary
source of energy in the rural areas’. As if on cue, Eskom began to wind
down its rural electrification programme, and announced it did not even
anticipate electrifying the nation’s far-flung schools, because ‘It is
not clear that having electricity in all schools is a first priority’
(Republic of South Africa Department of Minerals and Energy 1995:95,66).
Notwithstanding Eskom’s commercialization fetish, its economists had
badly miscalculated rural affordability during the late 1990s, so
revenues were far lower than were considered financially sustainable. By
estimating that customers would use 300 kWh per month, Eskom believed it
could turn a profit. Yet high prices, drove down consumption, even by
those with five years of access, to less than 10 kWh per month,
resulting in enormous losses for Eskom. Paying as much as $0.06 per hour
(compared to a corporate average of $0.01 and bigger discounts for
Alusaf), rural women use up their prepaid meter cards within a week and
can’t afford to buy another until the next pension payout. Without a
viable market, Eskom slowed new rural electrification connections to a
        The 1998 White Paper was an improvement on previous versions,
allowing for ‘moderately subsidized tariffs’ for poor domestic
consumers. But it too made the counterproductive argument that
‘Cross-subsidies should have minimal impact on the price of electricity
to consumers in the productive sectors of the economy’ (Republic of
South Africa Department of Minerals and Energy 1998). Worse, the
Department of Provincial and Local Government’s Municipal Infrastructure
Investment Framework supported only the installation of 5-8 amp
connections for households with less than $120 per month income, which
does not offer enough power to turn on a hotplate or a single-element
heater. As a result, health and environmental benefits that would
otherwise flow from clean electricity go up in smoke. Thanks to social
movement advocacy, this level was at least better than the old
Independent Development Trust site-and-service subsidies from 1991-94
and the original infrastructure investment policy, drafted largely by
the World Bank in 1994-95, both of which offered low-income households
no electricity hook-up.
In 2001, domestic consumers paid an average price to Eskom of 24.59
cents per kWh (Sowetans paid much higher average prices), while the
manufacturing sector paid 12.83 cents per kWh and the mining sector paid
12.32 cents per kWh. Two years earlier, in 1999, Soweto residents had
experienced three increases in a short period as Eskom brought tariffs
in line with other areas. From 18.77 cents per kWh, the price of
electricity rose by 47% to 27.6 cents per unit in less than twelve
months (Star, 15 July 1999). Such changes in tariffs reflected the move
towards ‘cost reflectivity’ and away from regulated price increases, in
order to reduce and eventually eliminate subsidies, so as to achieve
‘market-related returns sufficient to attract new investors into the
industry’ (Eskom 2001a:56). Eskom acknowledged that ‘individual
customers could experience significant changes in their price of
electricity’. In particular, those who previously had subsidized tariffs
suffered increases ‘well above the average’ (Eskom 2001b:4,7). The
result of the shift to cost reflective pricing will be ‘significant
price increases (around 50%) for domestic (conventional credit)
customers’, according to a confidential PriceWaterhouseCoopers report,
‘Tariffs, Levies and Financial Transition Strategies’. In some areas,
prices for domestic users are expected to rise by over 100% by 2010,
before inflation. Prices for most of the Eastern Cape and Free State,
and parts of the Northern Cape – South Africa’s poorest areas - are
expected to rise higher than anywhere else, due to distance from
electricity generation plants. The National Electricity Regulator gave
explicit support to above-inflation tariff increases in order to fund
investment in new capacity, much of which is anticipated to be privately
supplied, with a standard 20-30% profit premium added (Eskom 2001a:36).
Because of the residual bias towards supplying large consumers, the
post-apartheid government and Eskom simply neglected the implications of
an eco-social benefit analysis for low-income people, focusing instead
on holding down costs. In contrast, providing cheaper supplies in the
form of a free lifeline subsidy, as mandated in the Reconstruction and
Development Programme, was not on the politicians’ agenda, even when
protests broke out in townships from Cape Town to Durban to
Johannesburg. The main reason was that such subsidies disincentivize the
drive to corporatize and privatize electricity. The most important
deterrent to Eskom’s privatization was, by all accounts, the large ($320
million) and growing debt owed by township residents. The most durable
problem for any privatizer - whether generator, transmitter or
distributor - is pressure to redistribute cheap national-scale supplies
of power to municipalities, or eventually regional distributors, so as
to provide a free lifeline supply to ordinary South Africans. Even in
low-income communities with access to electricity, the cost of power for
cooking is so high that, for example, only a small proportion of
Sowetans with electric power use it, favouring cheaper fuels (Beall,
Crankshaw and Parnell 2002:Chapter Nine; White, Crankshaw, Mafokoane and
Meintjes 1998). The gender, health and environmental implications are
When arrears began to mount, Eskom’s first strategy was disconnection
and repression. Eskom decided in early 2001 to disconnect those
households whose arrears were in excess of $800, with payment more than
120 days overdue. An anticipated 131,000 households in Soweto were to be
cut off due to non-payment, according to Eskom (2001c) - even though the
company had only 126,000 recorded consumers in the township. In
addition, Johannesburg Metro authorities decided, in an act of
solidarity, to cut off water and then begin eviction proceeds through
sheriff sales, in an attempt to pressure people to pay Eskom arrears
(Saturday Star, 10 March 2001; Star, 17 May 2001). All manner of
gimmicks were attempted to encourage higher payment levels, including
lottery tickets as gifts for bill payment, but Sowetans’ arrears still
rose to an estimated $120 million by 2001.
    At stake was not merely Eskom’s attempt to collect the arrears
across South Africa, with Soweto representing the major challenge. Even
more important was the general principle of municipal credit control, by
which disconnecting electricity consumers made it is easier to collect
arrears on rates, water services and other charges. The ‘Project
Viability’ monitoring system of the Department of Provincial and Local
Government (DPLG) reported that a total of approximately $2 billion was
owed to municipalities - not including arrears on Eskom’s retail bills -
at the end of 2001. Electricity debts accounted for 15% of this total,
after rates (32%) and water (19%). Total arrears owing to municipalities
therefore stood at more than a quarter of yearly expenditure, with
electricity arrears equal to 4% of total municipal spending.
    By 2001 disconnections were widespread, with Project Viability
reports and Eskom press statements together indicating a rate of around
120,000 households per month. The rate was probably far higher since not
all municipalities responded to the DPLG survey, and the Eskom
statements focused on Soweto, where resistance was toughest. But even
using this base, and making a conservative estimate of six people
affected by every disconnection (since connections are made to
households, sometimes with a backyard dwelling), more than 720,000
people each month were denied access to electricity because of
non-payment in 2001. The overall connection target set by government of
350,000 connections a year translates to an average rate of 29,167 new
connections a month. Even if we only recognise the number of
disconnections after the number of reconnections are subtracted, it
still means that in 2001, there were several times as many households
losing access to electricity every month as were gaining access. A
survey of Soweto residents found that 61% of households had experienced
electricity disconnections, of whom 45% had been cut off for more than
one month. A random, stratified national survey conducted by the
Municipal Services Project and Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
found that 10 million people across South Africa had experienced
electricity cutoffs (McDonald 2002).
    More detail on retail electricity finance was provided in two of the
SECC’s core communities, Orlando East and Pimville, during a 2001 survey:

• Sowetans made regular payments on their electricity accounts, with
two-thirds paying $30 or less per month and one quarter paying less than
$15 (the average bill was $25, equal to electricity consumption of
approximately 500 kWh/month).
• Households provided evidence of inconsistent billing often due to
non-reading of meters. Nearly one in 10 reported that bills always come
to the same amount, while two in five recorded that meters were only
read occasionally. A further quarter of respondents said that Eskom
never read their meters.
• Aside from disputed accounts, the main problems paying bills were
long queues on pay-day, the lack of assistance in explaining bills,
cutoffs, and poor service from Eskom staff.
• It was often reported that Eskom staff have a negative attitude
towards consumer problems. Consumers know that they must take their
complaints to Eskom, but feel intimidated and therefore have many
unresolved problems.
• Half of the households keep their electricity bills for more than 4
years, confirming that the rising prices, huge arrears and erratic
billing were the source of long-standing grievances.

Because bills were higher than were affordable, arrears inexorably built
up on the Soweto accounts:

• In winter, households that pay up to $30 per month are actually
paying just half of what was billed.
• Arrears naturally increased in winter, when households are more
vulnerable to electricity cutoffs.
• Many people explained that although they could not afford their
entire bills, they pay part of them as assurance to Eskom that they are
willing to pay to avert a cutoff of their electricity.
• Nearly a fifth of the respondents were in arrears that date more
than 4 years, and for 14% the arrears were in excess of $2500.

Finally, arrears led to disconnections:

• Three out of five households experienced cutoffs over the course of
the previous year, of which 86% were due to non-payment. Only 14% of the
cutoffs were disputed, despite the widespread complaints of inconsistent
• Of households experiencing cutoffs, 10% had their cables removed
permanently. This is a response usually taken by Eskom when the consumer
has reconnected illegally, and the price of reconnection is usually

Disconnections, in turn, lead to all manner of health, environmental,
social and economic problems:

• When electricity is cut off, consumers record numerous
difficulties: the food gets spoiled (98%); we cannot cook the food
properly (90%); our personal hygiene is negatively affected (88%); we
spend more money on alternative fuels (84%); the kids cannot study
properly (81%); it increases crime in the area (73%); it is degrading to
my family to live without electricity (70%); the women have more work
(65%); it is bad for our working life (62%); it disrupts home business
(41%); it increases domestic violence in the neighbourhood (36%). All of
these interlocking problems are felt more severely by women.
• For those disconnected, the length of time that the household was
without electricity - i.e., either until a payment was made or supply
was illegally reconnected - varied: up to one day, 9%; a couple of days,
12%; 1 week (14%); 1-2 weeks (10%); 3-4 weeks (11%); and more than a
month (45%).

The impact of disconnections can be fatal. One indication of the health
implications of electricity denial and of supply cuts is the recent
upsurge in TB rates, as respiratory illnesses are carried by
particulates associated with smoke from wood, coal and paraffin).
Because of climate and congestion, respiratory diseases are particularly
common in Soweto. In a 1998 survey, two in five Sowetans reportedly
suffered from respiratory problems, 2% from TB, 4% from allergies, 0.5%
from cancer and 10% from other infections. More than a fifth of
council-house dwellers described their health as bad. Lost working days
resulted: 5% took 1-2 days off each year to recover; 9% took 3-5 days;
6% took 6-7 days; and 15% needed more than 8 days (Morris et al, 1999:
    Survey respondents reported many fires in the neighbourhood, often
caused by paraffin stoves, many of which were harmful to children.
Eskom’s disconnection procedures often resulted in electricity cables
lying loose in the streets. Residents were unhappy not only about the
high reconnection fees charged but the fact that Eskom uses outsourced
companies that earn $10 per household disconnection. No notification was
given that supply would be cut off, and residents were not given time to
rectify payments problems. Eskom can disconnect entire blocks at a time
by removing circuit breakers, penalizing those who do pay their bills
along with those who don’t. All these grievances proved the raw material
from which the SECC and its Operation Khanyisa emerged.

3) Soweto’s Operation Khanyisa

The SECC is a community group or ‘civic’, founded in May 2000 to
represent community interests with respect to electricity cut-offs,
rising prices of electricity, billing accuracy and other electricity
supply related issues (Dixon 2001, Haffajee 2001, Nelson 2002, Ngwane
2003, Kingsnorth 2003, Forrest 2003, Ngwane and Turner 2004, Egan and
Wafer 2004). It stands opposed to neoliberal policies, and maintains a
strong socialist ideological perspective (Alexander 2003). SECC grew
rapidly with considerable local and some international press focus on
the organization and its best-known leader, Trevor Ngwane, who was
formerly a Johannesburg ANC councillor representing Soweto until the
ruling party expelled him in 1999 for opposing the city’s privatization
strategy (Kgosana 2002). Although Soweto marches and rallies generally
attract less than 1,000 people, the group’s local, national and global
popularity is impressive (Ceruti 2002, Democratic Socialist Movement
2002). Internal support has tended to wax and wane, often in response to
government concessions to the SECC’s core constituency (Molebeledi
2002). A 2005 split in the SECC constituency emerged over political
analysis, strategies and tactics (leading to the formation of a rival
left group), and a key SECC organiser (Bongani Lubisi) passed away in
late 2005.
    The SECC’s prototypical member is an older unemployed woman.
Geographically, members are most likely to come from a range of
established areas in Soweto including Meadowlands, Diepkloof, Pimville,
Naledi, Dube and Orlando East. At the SECC’s Annual General Meeting in
early March 2003, 77 of 110 participants responded to a questionnaire
distributed by Peter Alexander of the University of Johannesburg,
designed to understand members’ background and motivations. 1 in 4
respondents were over the age of 60, more than two-thirds were over 40,
and just over 50% were women. Significantly some 88% were unemployed.
Alexander found that no respondents were members of the ANC or SA
Communist Party, and there were only a few members of other political
parties. SECC members were hostile to the South African National Civics
Organization, an ANC ally. While membership of political parties may
have been low, 70% of respondents declared that they belonged to a church.
    A full understanding of the SECC would not be possible without a
brief discussion of three other organizations: the Anti-Privatization
Forum (APF), the Alternative Information Development Center (AIDC) and
the Municipal Services Project. The APF is an umbrella network drawing
together Johannesburg-area civics and political groups. It was formed
by a combination of social forces opposed to ‘Igoli 2002’, a municipal
plan introduced in 1999 to corporatize and privatize municipal assets.
Initially the APF included unions, such as the South African Municipal
Workers Union and the National Education Health and Allied Workers
Union, the SA Communist Party’s inner-city branch, and students from the
University of Witwatersrand protesting fee increases and campus
restructuring. After the initial failure of two overlapping campaigns -
against Johannesburg Igoli 2002 and the University of the
Witwatersrand’s simultaneous neoliberal restructuring - and the formal
withdrawal of the unions and communists from participation as
anti-government rhetoric intensified, the APF turned its attention to
the issue of basic services provision in the townships, ranging from
electricity to water to education to food. By the mid-2000s, the APF
claimed as members 21 community-based affiliates and four political
    The Alternative Information Development Center (AIDC) provided
technical assistance with the APF’s foundation, and support from
2000-02. The AIDC is a ‘political’ NGO, which through an ‘integrated
strategy of research…popular education, campaigning and coalition
building’ offers ‘challenges to the currently dominant global economic
system’. It is committed to the ‘empowerment and mobilization of
progressive and popular organizations and social movements to contribute
to the development of alternatives that ensure fundamental socioeconomic
transformation’ (AIDC website Although the
Johannesburg office of AIDC was closed in mid-2002 in the wake of
pressure against its key personnel by churches and unions, the AIDC had
facilitated the emergence of the SECC and similar groups in Johannesburg
and Limpopo Province through technical and financial support. In
addition, the Municipal Services Project (MSP) based at the University
of the Witwatersrand and Queens University (Canada) served the SECC as a
research, policy and educational initiative (
The MSP assisted the SECC in designing and analyzing a seminal survey of
Soweto electricity use, conducted by Danish researcher Maj Fiil-Flynn
and several dozen SECC members in 2001 (Fiil-Flynn et al 2001). With NGO
facilitation and academic legitimation, the media became interested,
leading to extensive reports by SABC (South African Broadcasting
Corporation)Special Assignment, CNN news, The Washington Post, Newsday,
New Internationalist, Red Pepper, Fifth Estate and many other print and
broadcast media.
    The SECC was sufficiently strong that when the disconnections by
Eskom increased to 20,000 monthly in 2001, more than 3,000 Soweto
households quickly had their electricity supplies illegally restored
through ‘Operation Khanyisa’ (‘Reconnect the Power!’). SECC volunteers
risked electrocution to do the work, and charged their neighbours
nothing for the service. They occasionally had run-ins with Eskom
officials and the police, and in 2001 two Vaal township residents were
shot dead attempting to prevent disconnections (Ngwane 2001). In spite
of demonization by the state, Operation Khanyisa was considered an
overwhelming popular success. By October 2001, Eskom became sufficiently
intimidated that it gave in, announcing it would no longer disconnect
those Sowetans who couldn’t pay. The SECC announced ‘a temporary victory
over Eskom, but our other demands remain outstanding’:

• commitment to halting and reversing privatization and
• the scrapping of arrears;
• the implementation of free electricity promised to us in municipal
elections a year ago;
• ending the skewed rates which do not sufficiently subsidize
low-income black people;
• additional special provisions for vulnerable groups - disabled
people, pensioners, people who are HIV-positive; and
• expansion of electrification to all, especially impoverished people
in urban slums and rural villages, the vast majority of whom do not have
the power that we in Soweto celebrate (SECC 2001).

By late 2001, public enterprises minister Jeff Radebe offered a deal to
the Soweto residents, requesting that they end their Eskom payment
boycott, repay half their arrears and start making regular full payments
(Republic of South Africa Department of Public Enterprises 2001).
Despite his own recognition that accounts were inaccurate and that
corrupt contractors were cutting electricity off and forcing people to
pay high reconnection fees, Radebe offered residents only a one-month
‘amnesty’ to apply for reconnection to Eskom, threatening that any
resident who had not done so after one month would be prosecuted. He
also announced that 100% of pensioners’ arrears and 50% of arrears of
other residents would be set aside in a trust account, which would be
cancelled if payment rates improved. Regardless of the accuracy of the
arrears, residents would have to repay 50% of arrears in their name. In
early 2001, Radebe along with Sanco, the Human Rights Commission, Eskom,
the Johannesburg Metro and Johannesburg’s corporatized City Power
launched ‘Operation Lungise’ (Light Up) to persuade Sowetans that, as
full-page advertisements put it, ‘All you need to do is pay your current
account. Every month. On time. And with those payments, we’re able to
keep improving service delivery’. Although quite a few Sowetans signed
up for Radebe’s deal, within a few months payments levels were back to
pre-deal levels (Business Day, 12 April 2002).
    The SECC intensified its struggles, culminating with the arrest of
87 SECC and APF activists on charges of public violence and malicious
damage to property at a protest outside Johannesburg Mayor Amos
Masondo’s house on 6 April 2002 (Sunday Times, 7 April 2002). The plight
of the Kensington 87 (named after the suburb they were arrested in)
became a considerable focus of activism for the SECC and the APF.
Marches and protests were held outside the Johannesburg’s Jeppe
Magistrate’s Court leading up to their release and over the following
twelve months at the various court hearings. The activists aimed to
present the Mayor – who was in Hawaii at the time - with a memorandum of
grievances at his home, but in the course of a vigorous ‘toyi-toyi’
(political dance) and an attempt to disconnect the Mayor’s water supply,
a bodyguard fired 8 shots into the crowd, injuring two. The bodyguard
was arrested and charged with attempted murder and released on bail on
the Monday, 8 April. More than three dozen of the protestors where
either pensioners or children and were also released on 8 April. The
agonizingly slow bail application left 50 of the protestors in jail for
11 days, however, contrasting with the lenient treatment and bail given
the guard. The SECC and APF argued that the Kensington 87’s treatment
was evidence that the ANC was tightening civil and political rights as a
way of stifling dissent against the government’s neoliberal municipal
services policies (Harvey 2002). After a number of delays, and almost a
year after the event, the case against the 87 was dismissed by the
magistrate due to a lack of reliable evidence (APF 2003).
    The events surrounding the mass imprisonment did raise important and
difficult tactical questions for the SECC. While the SECC’s profile was
significantly raised, the mainstream print and broadcast media generally
characterized the events outside Masondo’s home negatively, despite a
few factual reports (Cox 2002, Pikwana 2002). This negative spin
potentially undermined broader community support for the SECC. The
imprisonment and the associated legal costs caused much hardship to the
protestors and their families. A vigorous solidarity campaign provided
both material and emotional assistance to those in jail, but the strain,
both personal and organizational, was high.
    Nonetheless the SECC’s activism on other stages continued unabated.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in August 2002 also
helped raise the SECC’s profile. A memorable Mail & Guardian front page
(16 August 2002) framed elderly SECC stalwart Florence Nkwashu in front
of riot police with the headline ‘We’ll take Sandton!’ The SECC was
central to the memorable 25,0000 strong march from Alexandra to Sandton,
the largest post-1994 mobilization in South Africa aside from trade
union mobilizations. The ‘Big March’ was roughly ten times larger than
one held supporting the WSSD by the ANC, trade unions and churches, held
along the same route later that day. The SECC’s involvement even merited
a disparaging mention in The Economist (2002:59).
    In early 2003, the SECC gained grants from international agencies
such as War on Want, and employed an administrator and an organiser with
an annual budget of $50,000. The SECC subsequently broadened its
campaigning focus from electricity to also resisting the installation of
pre-paid water metres (Harvey 2005). Disconnections combined with
pre-paid electricity and water meters made a nonsense of the ANC’s 2000
municipal election promise: ‘ANC-led local government will provide all
residents with a free basic amount of water, electricity and other
municipal services, so as to help the poor. Those who use more than the
basic amounts will pay for the extra they use’ (African National
Congress 2000). Until 2005, Eskom bureaucrats ignored the promise, and
finally – along with most municipalities - decided that a lifeline of
just 50 kWh (or less) per household per month would suffice. Such a
meagre amount merely supplied light and perhaps radio/TV power, to a
typical household, but did not provide enough electricity to meet the
basic needs of heating, cooking and a hot water-heater. Ngwane is also
critical of the ANC’s choice of the household as a unit of measurement,
arguing that free lifeline supplies of electricity should be allocated
on a ‘per person’ basis so as to avoid bias against large families. The
main SECC proposal, according to Ngwane (interview, 19 August 2001), was
for ‘at least one kiloWatt hour per person per day [of free
electricity]. For a family of 10 that would translate to 300 kWh per
month, or $15 at the current high price of $0.04 per kiloWatt hour. That
is a fair subsidy - less than $1.50 per person per month - and we think
a rich company like Eskom has the means to pay it.’
    The SECC’s 2005 organisational crisis stemmed from disputes over
Ngwane’s leadership style and the way socialist ideology emerged,
ultimately becoming the official constitutional objective of the SECC.
Another dispute within and around the SECC and APF was whether and how
to contest the March 1 2006 municipal election. Across Gauteng, an
‘Operation Khanyisa’ political party emerged from those APF affiliates
which saw in the conversion of civil society to electoral politics, the
opportunity to advance and test a socialist program with a mass
constituency. The hope was not to defeat the still mighty ANC in any
particular ward (Ngwane won only 30% in his Pimville, Soweto
constituency in 2000), but to at least win ward-based proportional
representation seats in the Johannesburg city council, from which to
launch and sustain yet more intense struggles against the city’s
neoliberal rulers.


The debate over the commodification of electricity appeared set to
continue and even intensify during the last half of the 2000s, as
Eskom’s restructuring plan continued to fail its low-income customers
and the society and environment more generally. What we learn from the
Soweto case confirms the ‘double movement’ of Karl Polanyi (1957:76), in
which ‘the extension of the market organisation in respect to genuine
commodities was accompanied by its restriction’, as society resisted
excessive commodification.
    While the SECC was one of the most advanced movements along these
lines, it was not the only one. Other South Africans fighting for
‘decommodification’ in recent years established interlocking,
overlapping campaigns to turn basic needs into genuine human rights,
including demands – sometimes partially met – for free anti-retroviral
medicines to fight AIDS; at least 50 litres of free water for each
individual every day; extensive land reform; prohibitions on service
disconnections and evictions; free education; nationalised and free
basic telephony; and even a monthly ‘Basic Income Grant’. Social
movements, women’s groups, churches, NGOs and trade unions are all
basically committed to this agenda, even if there are temporary
divisions over political-party alignments which prevent, in the
foreseeable future, a South African Social Forum from arising with all
the necessary forces. The main trade union movement, the Treatment
Action Campaign and most church activists have strong loyalties to the
ruling party. In contrast, the urban and rural social movements, Jubilee
South Africa, solidarity groups working on Palestine and Burma, and the
Environmental Justice Networking Forum are all vigorous critics of the
South African government. They formed a national alliance known as the
‘Social Movements Indaba’ – whose first action was the anti-WSSD protest
in 2002 - as a prototype for a national Social Forum, but of a more
explicitly left style than the standard World Social Forum affiliate.
    These campaigns seem to throw up the possibility of ‘universal’
programmatic work, perhaps via a national World Social Forum process at
some stage, or via a human-rights agenda being extended to
socio-economic rights (as in South Africa’s 1996 Constitution, still
largely unimplemented). The APF is taking the water minister to the
courts for alleged violation of rights to water, concerning the use of
pre-paid water meters. While there are all manner of problems with
‘rights discourses,’ they do parallel the kinds of reactions to rampant
market penetration now underway across the world, since civil society
organisations are expected to stand in when neoliberal policies shrink
the state. But here arises another dilemma for the Social Forum
strategists: under conditions of never-ending structural adjustment,
most Africans who lobby for democracy and basic socio-economic services
from their state regimes are and will continue to be frustrated. Even
South Africans have had regular problems with maintaining their
first-generation civil and political rights, much less second-generation
socio-economic rights. In such an environment, progress will be forged
not from good ideas and polite advocacy, technicist interventions and
insider persuasion tactics, but in mass-movement campaigns emanating
from well-organised, democractic communities and shopfloors able to
withstand repression by the nationalist ruling party. Here, no matter
its subsequent problems, the experience of the SECC during the early
2000s was exemplary in the broader battle to roll back neoliberalism and
ultimately win the hearts and minds of society to socialism.



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