Thursday 20 March 2008 by Ahmed

Electricity is a right and the poor must have access to clean, alternative energy. South Africa needs democratic control of energy for all!

The issue of electricity in South Africa, in particular with ESKOM, is about the generation and distribution of electricity in Africa. As indicated in our country’s Constitution (in the bill of rights) electricity is a right. ESKOM has an attitude that electricity is a privilege not a right hence the ridiculous tariff increment of wanting to charge more than 53%. The Anti Privatisation Forum is condemning this increase and it is mobilising its constituencies against this proposed increase. This comes after ESKOM last year proposed an 18% tariff increase and the National Electricity Regulator of South Africa granted a 14% increase. The recent electricity black-outs in the country has promoted a public debate around the issue of the consumption of energy but have ignored the main source of the problem. The Anti Privatisation Forum (APF) has been struggling for the past eight years to ensure that poor communities have access to basic free electricity and that the poor are aware of their constitutional and human rights in attaining this service.

Many of our people in the country are unemployed and live below the poverty line. It is a fact that at least 50% of the population has become worse off since 1994, with most struggling to survive on a daily basis. Many of our constituencies have been living in squalid conditions where they have no roof over their head, use coal & paraffin for fire, candles for studying at night and little or no access to water & sanitation. Despite recent reports from the government on achieving their targets, many communities (Kliptown, Boiketlong, Kwa-Masiza, Tembalihle, Protea South, Khayelitsha QQ residents, Joe Slovo, Ikageng, Delft, Kennedy Road & Crossmoor) and many more informal settlements are at a disadvantage and have lost hope. Around 30% of South Africa’s population has absolutely no access to electricity, while many more than do have access will not be able to afford the proposed tariff increases.

The recent noise about load-shedding in the country is because big-business has been affected (where some have been forced to run their operations at 90-95% capacity). This has been viewed as a problem because it will affect production and decrease profitability resulting in a decline in the country’s economic growth. Even louder noises have been made that this will result in job losses and investors will be scared to risk their investments in the country.


It comes as no surprise that ESKOM CEO, Jacob Maroga, who recently met with 131 business executives from the ESKOM’s top 38 industrial and business customers in Midrand to discuss solutions to the power crisis, consciously excluded community and social movement organizations. Agriculture and the business sector combined get 83% of all electricity while the citizenry must scavenge for the remaining 17%. Then we wonder why the community is told to sleep early, switch of the geyser, use light saving bulbs, report illegal connections ("izinyoka") and utilise less electricity during peak hours when they only use 17% of electricity. But also the message is directed to the poor who use minimal amounts of electricity as compared to the rich who have Jacuzzi’s, warm swimming pools, air conditioners, under floor heaters and many other electricity-eating gadgets. But this is not the point, we can’t compare this consumption to that of big business who clearly are being given first preference by ESKOM in terms of pricing policy. While big business is being provided electricity at less than 15 cents per kilowatt/hour, poor rural residents have long been charged 48 cents per kilowatt/hour. During recent power cuts, we have seen President Mbeki saying that it is a national crisis and all must play a role in taking equal responsibility for the crisis - we agree, there is a crisis, but it is not poor people who should bear equal burden for that crisis. The APF backs the call of the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) for ’civil society’ to be part of the Electricity Forum - the voices of the poor must be heard.

The main sources of energy consumption/use in our modern lives are petroleum, natural gas and coal - all fossil fuels which are diminishing and with few/no alternatives energy sources in mind. In addition, ownership and control of present energy sources is monopolized by a few corporates and ultra-wealthy individuals. In South Africa, the government is responsible for producing 90% of the country’s electricity output, mostly all through coal-fired power stations. The additional 5% comes from nuclear-generated power (Koeberg) and hydro resources. This means that our government, through ESKOM, has the sole discretion as to how to distribute electricity output - and we can all see what decisions that have taken (agriculture gets 3%, commerce gets 10%, transport gets 2% and industry, a whopping 68%). The government’s macro-economic policy
- GEAR - provides the overall framework for such choices of electricity distribution.

A classic example of this is the recent ALCAN-Coega deal with ESKOM that was signed on the 24th November 2006 (but which has since been delayed). The proposed Alcan-Coega aluminum smelter requires 1300MW of coal-generated power, enough to supply a small city, with Alcan only paying 0.02 to 0.06 cents per kilowatt/hour. What this clearly reveals is that there is no democratic process in decisions regarding electricity generation, distribution and pricing.


The only long term solution is to address both the environmental and human justice concerns, as part of addressing the political economy of energy/power. One of the factors that most all are agreed on, is that there are major socio-economic inequalities in South Africa. For example, poor people have been, and to a lesser extent continue to be, deprived of quality education and thus of the possibilities of being able to learn about the political economy of energy. Issues of energy have to be taken down to the community level. In the APF local government electricity platform we have clearly outlined our demands and alternative sources of energy. Addressing the immediate nature of the present crisis and its anti-poor ’solutions’, requires a change in the distribution policy of ESKOM and government, reduction of electricity cut-offs, lower residential tariffs (especially for the poor) and an increase in the life-line allowances.

We need to be clear that there is no shortage of energy. There are existing alternative energy sources/ technologies (solar, wind, biogas etc.) and there are also methods of using energy with much greater efficiency, which have the potential to change the political economy of power. Moving forward on this front is going to require public sector/state support and subsidisation - especially for further research and development. We need to decentralise the generation of electricity to the local level of municipalities, town villages and households. Wind and solar energy provide two of the potentially best alternative sources, because they are free to all and they can’t be controlled by a few. Individual citizens and communities must have the ability not only to set their own electricity requirements but also to meet their own needs. People must have direct control of the electricity sector.

As the APF we say:

Forward to democratic control of renewable energy for all!

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