There is a political and an energy crisis in South Africa. From the point of view of many ordinary people, Eskom and the government have failed the people. The power failures that are taking place are adding to the crisis of political credibility that the post-apartheid democratic government is experiencing.
The energy crisis is happening against the backdrop of community uprisings, strikes, student boycotts and other forms of mass action that proliferate in the country indicating dissatisfaction and anger at the ANC government’s slow pace of “delivery” of a better life.
With food rotting in the fridge, workers losing their jobs, students having to study with candles and the frightening prospect of this chaos becoming the norm, there is a growing sense of uncertainty and hardship in the country.
The blackouts hit the working class and the poor the hardest. While the rich can buy generators and eat at restaurants, the poor must live in darkness without food because there is no electricity to cook. Meanwhile Eskom bosses pay themselves big salaries and undeserved bonuses. Eskom is demanding a 53% tariff increase barely 3 months after causing an uproar when it applied for an 18% increase and only managed to get away with 14%.
The roots of the energy crisis lie in the very structure of the South African capitalist economy. It is an economy historically built to produce and distribute goods and services for the benefit of a minority at the expense of the majority. For millions of South Africans, the energy crisis is not new - they have been living with it for a long time. Many communities live in the Dark Ages with too many people destined to live all their lives without ever having electricity in their homes. Cut-offs for non-payment and power failures due to poor infrastructure are some of the things working class communities have been living with all along.
About 85% of the country’s electricity is used by big business, that is, most of the electricity is used to make profits. Big business pays about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour while domestic users pay about 26 cents. The abuse of the country’s electricity by the capitalists can be seen in the long-term deals Eskom makes with aluminium smelter bosses that get them huge amounts of electricity for as little as 3 cents per unit.
The South African economy is designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer and electricity is no exception to this rule. Indeed, electricity is central to the historical development of South African capitalism. The tragedy is that the ANC government of national liberation has failed to significantly transform the social and economic structure of exploitation that it inherited. To the contrary, it has embraced neoliberal capitalist policies that entrench this structure and attack the working class and the poor.
Is the dream of liberation indeed being trampled upon on the altar of profit? The South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, members of the ANC-SACP-COSATU Tripartite Alliance, have openly criticized the ANC government’s top leadership for allowing the first decade of democracy to benefit the capitalist “class project” at the expense of the working class and the poor. It is the ANC’s neoliberal policies of GEAR and privatisation that tell Eskom - obey only one law, the law of profit. Millions of people live without electricity, but the electricity is there. Eskom closed down power stations instead of building new ones. Eskom retrenched 30 000 workers, half its workforce, instead of training and retaining them. President Mbeki apologised to the nation and blamed unprecedented growth for the crisis, but this begged the question of why a government that has made growth its mantra failed to anticipate it and plan accordingly.
It is workers and the poor who pay for the capitalist crisis. Banks can go bust and companies fold but it is ordinary people who pay with their jobs and lost savings while the directors get bail-outs from government. Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, is giving Eskom tens of billions of rands to solve its self-created crisis. This will secure the jobs and big salaries of Eskom bosses while ordinary people face steep tariff increases, power rationing, intensification of cut-offs, paralysis of the electricity roll-out programme, job losses and more load shedding.
The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee is a community organisation that was formed in 2000 to fight against Eskom’s cutting the electricity supply to 20 000 houses per month in Soweto as part of its cost recovery programme. Eskom was under instruction from the Minister of Public Enterprises, Jeff Radebe, who wanted to make Eskom attractive to investors by dangling profits and making sure everyone pays for electricity. The SECC rode the wave of the spontaneous resistance that resulted from these cut-offs and launched Operation Khanyisa whereby if Eskom cut off a resident the SECC would re-connect it. The campaign gained momentum forcing Radebe to make a deal with residents that involved a moratorium on cut-offs and the scrapping of residents’ debts amounting to over a billion rand.
SECC comrades feel vindicated about their early opposition to electricity cut-offs and privatisation. It was the government’s misled privatisation policies and the practice of putting profits before the needs of the people - and of the country - that blinded it to the developing crisis. It seems it was never about ensuring a reliable, safe, clean and affordable supply of electricity; no, it was always about using cheap electricity to feed mining, industrial and agricultural profits and building Eskom into a big multinational cash cow energy corporation.
Environmentalists and other progressive people tell Eskom to invest in solar, wind, water and other renewable sources of energy. Eskom and the government’s discordant answer is nuclear energy. We oppose nuclear energy because it is dangerous and expensive. Bio-fuels use up land that could grow food and they can result in de-forestation.
The SECC cannot face the present crisis alone and needs the strength of a united and fighting working class movement in order to win. Hence it has recently spearheaded a national campaign to fight against the electricity crisis. The campaign aims to amplify the voices from the ground in a public debate mostly dominated by government and big business. Some local Soweto civic organisations have already joined hands with SECC to form the Coalition Against the Electricity Crisis in South Africa. Its aim is to fight for solutions that will benefit the working class and the poor. It puts the blame for the crisis squarely at the feet of government and its capitalist policies. The Coalition, backing its words with action, already conducts weekly pickets at Soweto Eskom paypoints. Two protest marches are planned in the next two months.
SECC’s early demands were - electricity is a right not a privilege, it is better to break the law than to break the working class and the poor, free basic services for all, no to cut-offs, no to retrenchments, no to privatisation, no to GEAR, no to capitalism. The latest demands given the current crisis are - no to load shedding, no to retrenchments due to load shedding, no to 53% tariff increase, no to fat cat salaries for Eskom bosses, yes to renewable energy.
The ANC government must re-nationalise Eskom by reversing all privatisation processes. Control over Eskom should be exercised by representatives from the trade unions and from working class community and youth organisations, supported by progressive NGOs and individuals, and not by the ANC capitalist government and Eskom bosses. Electricity and government must be controlled by the working class and the poor and not by the capitalists as is the case today. That is the only way this country can liberate itself from the present political and energy crisis. Hence the new campaign slogan - “Electrical and political power to the working class and the poor!”