South Africa

Current of Discontent: An ‘act of madness’ precipitates civil unrest in Zandspruit

By Aimee Clarke 11 April 2016

Last month, without warning, Eskom disconnected thousands of Zandspruit residents, plunging the settlement into darkness and sparking violent service delivery protests. Eskom said the connections were illegal, and dangerous, but what choice did residents have? By AIMEE CLARKE for EE PUBLISHERS.

First published by EE Publishers.

The past month has seen violent service delivery protests, burning tyres, destruction to property, road closures, looting and seething civil unrest in Zandspruit, precipitated by a heavy-handed action by Eskom and the City of Johannesburg to disconnect thousands of informal electricity connections in the township.

Instead of first engaging with community leaders and the community itself to put in place a plan of action for the formal electrification of the township, with carefully communicated milestones that could be monitored, the City and Eskom embarked on an unannounced blitz on 8 March 2016 in conjunction with the SA Police.

The ill-conceived operation, which has been described as an “act of madness” by EE Publishers’ investigative editor, Chris Yelland, plunged 35,000 Zandspruit residents into darkness without warning or communication. The resulting civil unrest, violence and destruction to property for the next week was both predictable and inevitable.

Furthermore, with the desperate need for electricity by residents, it was always obvious that without dealing with the underlying issue of the formal electrification of Zandspruit, little would be achieved, and the illegal connections would simply be reconnected within days. This has indeed proved to be the case.

Run-up to the violence

The township of Zandspruit, situated in the Honeydew area along Beyers Naude Drive about 25km north-west of the Johannesburg central business district, started as an unproclaimed informal settlement on private property about 22 years ago.

For many years the settlement did not appear on official city maps, and was studiously ignored by planners, who failed to provide such basic services as roads, water, sanitation, electricity, drainage and refuse collection.

However, as the settlement grew, the City of Johannesburg could no longer turn a blind eye to the reality that Zandspruit had become a permanent community. As a result, the City began to acquire the land on which Zandspruit had been established, as well as adjacent land in the area.

But while the land to the east has been developed into the sprawling Cosmo City, complete with roads, street lights, electricity, water supply, sewage and sanitation, stormwater drainage, refuse removal, shopping malls and all the facilities expected of a significant formal township development, Zandspuit’s 35,000 residents still remain both severely under-serviced and badly neglected.

From 1992 to date, Eskom, the designated electricity distributor for Zandspruit responsible for electrification and electricity reticulation in the area, has electrified only 268 of the estimated 15,000 dwellings, with the last homes electrified in 2004.

Promises to the Zandspruit community by Eskom, city officials and local government politicians – usually before elections – have repeatedly been broken, leading to cynicism and anger by residents that their needs are being ignored, and that they should take matters into their own hands.

Unregistered ‘contractors’

The demand for electricity by residents for lighting, cooking, heating, cellphone charging, radio and television in Zandspruit is such that the majority of dwellings have been informally electrified through illegal connections by unregistered “electrical contractors”.

The reticulation in Zandspruit is certainly noncompliant with every rule in the book, including the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act, the Electrical Installation Regulations and the mandatory Code of Practice for Low Voltage Electrical Installations, SANS 10142-1.

As a result, deaths by electrocution of innocent residents, including women and children, have been occurring regularly on a monthly basis. In these circumstances, the Department of Labour as custodians of the OHS Act, the City of Johannesburg as landowner, and Eskom as electricity distributer, had no alternative but to act.

But in formulating a plan of action, one would have hoped and expected that some wisdom, foresight and empathy could be demonstrated, with engagement and communication with the affected community. Community leaders, the residents and even the illegal “electrical contractors” are not blind to the issues.

At the scene of the death by electrocution of six-year-old Edward Chauke in Zandspruit on 18 February 2016, one of the informal contractors indicated that he was painfully conscious of the life-threatening dangers of the informal electrification in the township.

But he said too that the absence of electricity to the densely packed dwellings in the township posed equal dangers to health and safety through the use of candles and paraffin stoves, the risk of fire, and security risks through inadequate lighting.

What would you do if you lived here in Zandspruit and did not get a basic electricity supply for 25 years?” he asked. “What we want here is a proper electricity supply, and a college to train us to become qualified electricians.

Special’ budgets

Funds exist to fix this problem. It is well known that over the last two decades, the Department of Energy, and its predecessor the Department of Minerals and Energy, has had budgets for “special ministerial projects”, such as the electrification of “politically sensitive” under-serviced communities.

If prioritised and so instructed by the Department of Energy, Eskom could complete the electrification within months,” said an informed industry source.

However, after the violence and civil unrest eased, City of Johannesburg Councillor Matshidiso Mfikoe said on 26 March 2016 that the electrification of Zandspruit had been hampered by a “lack of budget”. But she promised that Eskom would commence the electrification project on 1 July 2016, and that it would take about three years to complete.

Coming as it does a month before the local government elections on 3 August 2016, residents of Zandspruit can’t be blamed for remaining sceptical. DM

Aimee Clarke is an assistant editor for EE Publishers.

Photo: Striking community members protest on the streets of Zandspruit, an informal settlement west of Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 March 2016. Community members blocked and barricaded roads surrounding the settlement, after their illegal electricity connections where removed by Johannesburg Council workers almost a week ago. EPA/SHIRAAZ MOHAMED.

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