Power to the people 

Power to the people 

In this tale of power struggles and self-sufficiency, VIV VERMAAK unveils the dark side of electricity supply in South Africa. She reveals that residents of the country hope that ubuntu will save them. Even worse, they think the government will…

Right now, I have the choice of three electricity suppliers: myself, the government, or “the Northerners”. Some, but not all, of these suppliers go via Eskom. I am hedging my bets and utilising all three. I was only made shockingly aware of the last option recently when my suburb was without electricity for three weeks and I realised there was a new operator in town.

When you cast people in darkness for a while, a light will shine brightly on the creeping spectre of blackmail, corruption, desperation, and lack of service delivery overwhelming the country slowly, but my street very quickly.

I live in a racially and economically mixed community. For the sake of brevity, I will use the descriptors “white”, “Indian”, “black”, and “foreigners” (collectively known by some other groups as “the Northerners”, although this is a loose term describing anyone from Limpopo northwards, not excluding Somalian or Nigerian residents and anyone associated with them).

We’ve all been living next to each other for years, but we’ve never met each other. So, for the first time, we left our walled houses and met on the street corner at the sub-station to see if we could solve our problem.

Not surprisingly, the different groups had marked differences in how they thought the electricity problem could be resolved  – and even how they defined what the actual problem was. I am going to make you guess which group said what.

The first group said the problem was that our electricity line was overloaded because of overcrowding and all the illegal electricity connections supplying the low-rental rooms that have mushroomed in the area. This is a practice called “shack farming”, where old houses designed as family homes in the past are bought and modified into rental units, often accommodating 20 to 30 rooms per property. This group’s solution was to draw up petitions and get the councillor to evict the illegal occupants forcefully, while disconnecting the illegal electricity connections.

The second group took offence to the word “overloading”, suggesting it had racial overtones and that the word “illegal” had an unfortunate tone to it. They cautioned to avoid xenophobia and said we must not point fingers at each other. “We must work together,” they said. Their solution was to protest at the municipal offices.

The representative of the third group was hostile, but calm. It was clear the suggestions of system overload were directed at him as a landlord, but he stood his ground. He had long learned to not rely on the government; as natural, energetic, and unrelenting problem solvers, his community had formed small networks and emotional pressure systems to do it themselves. He raised his phone, showed us a picture of a circuit breaker and said: “I know a guy who can get this from the storeroom and install it tomorrow morning. That will solve the problem once and for all.”

He agreed with the suggestion that the community must work together, but that the samewerking and ontwikkeling should go towards collecting the R4,000 for the Ekurhuleni technicians, whom we understood to now only respond to instructions from his boss. I thought it was remarkable. He was the only one with a real plan. Sure, some of us might call that plan “extortion”, or “the hijacking of state infrastructure”, but it offered immediate benefits to a community who felt abandoned by the municipality. Enough people listened. Soon we had electricity – except for those who did not pay.

I was so impressed by this man that I congratulated him: “I cannot believe you are standing here proudly, not only the alleged cause of the problem, but also the spearhead of the solution and the controller of the means of production. Are you sure you are not the ANC?” I laughed, but I was the only one. The rest of the group stared at the transformer box and shook their heads. We pointed fingers at it, unable to look each other in the eye. We did not know how to talk meaningfully about the difficult issues of race, rapid urbanisation in lower middle-class areas like mine, and the reality of solving problems sustainably.

Maybe the obstacle is not the three-phase or the circuit breaker – it is us. We don’t know how to have the tough discussions. We want unity, but we don’t make the effort to unite. We hope ubuntu will save us; even worse, we think the government will.

I was the only one arguing for radical self-sufficiency as individuals. I cautioned against bowing down to shakedowns, the dangers of tampering with high voltage equipment, and that we should rather look at options for investing in group solar or petrol options. It is a philosophy instilled in me by great thinkers of this very organisation. But it is not a popular view. It is easier to blame the government or the “Northerners” isn’t it?

Robert Coase won a Nobel prize for his ideas on transaction costs and how they influence the formation of big firms. His theory was that the most efficient organisational structures would be the ones that limit the costs of exchange. These costs include not only the actual price of an item but also what he called “transaction costs”, like the costs of searching for an item, bargaining for it, and enforcing the rules of the trade.

I propose that governments are formed on the same principle and work in the same way. People vote their responsibility away. It’s easier. It’s worth it. It simply becomes too much effort to barter for every service every time, especially when the different socio-economic classes have not found a common language. The social costs are just too great, so much so that some people in my street are selling or abandoning their houses because the friction costs of the negotiations are too great.

Right now, there is a collection doing the rounds for a magical R30,000 red feeder cable that will solve the problem “once and for all”. I will not be donating this time, because I understand how the power grid pyramid scheme works now. Also, I have solar, a generator, and a gas geyser; the other residents don’t. So, they will keep falling for the racket, especially the one being run by Eskom and the government.

The people don’t want their power, so there will be no power to the people.

The original version of this article was first published by BizNews on 1 June 2023.

Author: Viv Vermaak is an award-winning investigative journalist, director, and writer. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

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