South Africa

ANALYSIS

Electricity generation — when the state is failing, the people will take over

As Eskom continues to fail and as politicians appear more interested in scoring political points than in resolving the problem, people may feel they have to provide electricity for themselves, says the writer. (Photo: Unsplash / Terry Vlisidis)

As essential services collapse across South Africa, citizen groups are taking matters into their own hands, taking control of their own infrastructure. The generation of electricity on a local level is the next, albeit highly contested, step.

As South Africa’s politicians dither and fight about what is needed to fix our critical problems, public services are failing in important areas. In a democracy, this often leads to political change and the emergence of new formations that challenge for power to resolve these problems. However, if that does not happen, or if services do not improve, citizens may resort to other options.

It may be that we are about to see people fixing their own problems and working around the state, or even in defiance of it. The current situation with Eskom could speed up this process, with important implications for our future as a nation on the issues such as whether the government can really stop communities from generating electricity for themselves.

Last week, the High Court sitting in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), ruled that the Eastern Cape Provincial Government must take the Makana Municipality under administration. The problems facing Makana are felt in many other places. Many municipalities can no longer pay their Eskom bills (despite having been paid by their residents for the electricity that they received). Others simply cannot guarantee the provision of water. Still, others threaten the health of millions of people by pouring raw sewage into places like the Vaal Dam.

It is clear that citizens are getting angrier and more frustrated at these problems. They may soon start to club together and provide their own services. They may also just give up on formal politics.

In some ways, this is happening already.

Because the SAPS has been unable to keep citizens safe, and as violent crime levels lead to more and more people becoming victims of crime (even if crime levels decrease, by default the number of victims can only go up), communities have created their own patrol systems nationwide. In middle-class areas, people pay formal security companies. In other places, people do it themselves.

The aim of these groups is to keep their communities safe. In some cases, the police work with them. They actually see them as adding to their capacity to fight crime. But in other cases, these groups run the risk of becoming vigilantes, of killing people or becoming criminals — People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) in the 1990s is an example of this.

For communities neglected by the government, trying to resolve some of the burning issues can be virtually impossible. It’s very difficult, for example, to build your own roads. The amount of money and resources that you need is immense, which is why governments almost always build roads, apart from companies with a lot of capital, and in very specific commercial circumstances.

However, electricity provision is something else entirely.

As Eskom continues to fail and as politicians appear more interested in scoring political points than in resolving the problem, people may feel they have to provide electricity for themselves.

At the moment, people are doing this on a small scale as individuals and families, such as purchasing generators for their homes. But it would be much cheaper for them to do this on a bigger scale as communities. In other words, they could together buy a big generator as an investment, and then distribute the electricity that it creates. Blocks of homes in a suburb could be running off one generator, situated at the point where four or more properties intersect. This would probably scale up quite quickly, with people investing in even bigger generators and then selling the electricity to other people in their suburb.

It seems that the government may, in fact, try to stop people from doing this. It has given the impression that it wants people to register even if they are simply producing electricity for themselves through solar panels.

Politically, it would look really bad. If someone in official capacity tried to switch off a generator or stopped a community from providing electricity for itself, they would look completely irrational. In the end, any party that tried to block people providing electricity for themselves would face huge opposition, with courts being approached to settle the issue — and judges will have a difficult time listening to the government’s argument on its sole rights to electricity distribution, load shedding be damned.

Tied to all of this is the question of whether people beginning to give up on government services has a political impact. Do they still vote, would they vote for other parties, or would the situation simply continue in the direction it is now?

This is difficult to know. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence that fewer people are voting than before. This is especially true of young people, who are more likely to be unemployed. Many of them are dropping out of the democracy system altogether.

Make no mistake, though, different people will react to these burning issues in different ways.

Herman Mashaba, for example, the former mayor of Joburg, now seems determined to build a new political party. However, there are significant obstacles to him succeeding in making this into a contender for political power. Any other person following the same route may face the same obstacles.

But a major generator of the support for Mashaba’s party would be any indication that those in power would stop people finding their own solutions. For example, should they seize an “illegal” generator, support for a new opposition party could grow pretty dramatically. Perhaps those in power will have to think carefully before making rash, unpopular decisions.

In a strange way, one of the things that currently binds South Africans to one another is that almost all of us suffer from the travails of Eskom. When there is load shedding, literally the entire nation feels its effects; even those with generators have to battle through traffic jams. But should situations develop where certain communities are able to do this for themselves and have electricity all the time, inequality will be deepened massively.

That will, of course, create even more divisions in our society.

The obvious answer is simply to fix Eskom and create a formal situation in which people can generate, sell, and buy electricity from one another. The larger the scale of this, the more efficient it will be. But for reasons that have not been adequately explained, Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe is not allowing more electricity from Independent Power Producers to be sold to the grid. While the country and the economy suffer tremendously, the electricity is generated, but not used during a power crisis.

It may also not be long before a large company, faced with the prospect of having to lay off workers, decides to switch on its own generators, in clear defiance of any regulations.

Should things continue, we will face the ultimate test: is the government’s claim on generation and distribution of energy more important than the economy itself, and hundreds of thousands of jobs that are in danger of being lost? Some companies, and individuals, may even band together to go to court on this; in its essence, this cuts to the core of humanity’s organising process: who’s more important, the people of the country, or the will of its government?

To many the answer is simple, and if there is no action soon or change in energy policy, the government may find itself losing control of the situation altogether. DM

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