Culture shock in Soweto

!slum conditions protea south informal settlement 100_7627Energy is the oil that lubricates social and business life in South Africa. But for indigent communities, it is also a burning source of social unrest, as well as a political campaign issue for emerging political parties. This is what a group of Nigerian and South African journalists found out on a visit to the informal settlement of Protea South in Soweto where unrest occurred a week ago.

Before visiting the settlement, our group paid a call on SolarCharge, a company based in the leafy Kyalami Business Park. The connection between industrial innovation and social needs was soon made.


SolarCharge, an alternative solar energy company; is spearheading small-scale renewable power for small businesses, farms and traffic lights. The technology makes use of off- grid solar power units.

“We realised that blackouts in many African countries have become the norm and the rate of daily hours where blackouts occur is increasing at an alarming rate. The situation is worsened by the inability of parastatals [State-owned utilities] to supply electricity to many rural areas,” says the Chief Operations Officer Guy Robertson.

!billboards_ALEX container_20130813_091619 - CopyThe firm works mainly with smaller municipalities to provide solar lighting products at main road intersections: mainly traffic lights. It leverages these installations for future business by erecting illuminated billboards at the sites, and selling outdoor advertising space.

“In urban areas, the inadequate supply of electricity has had a detrimental effect on the ability of developers and building contractors to roll out much needed housing and infrastructural developments,” says Robertson.

The solar powered products designed, developed and manufactured by SolarCharge excited the Nigerian media group.

“In Nigeria individuals are harnessing solar energy for household subsistence and individual use. I’m impressed that here in South Africa there is a strong commercial element that has the ability to drive enterprises and development. It certainly is going to inspire other people to address the energy crises in Africa,” says Nigerian TV journalist Kandi Daniel.

SolarCharge has built what it calls a Solar Connection Centre. This is essentially a mobile container with integrated, self-supplied, solar power which provides 100% off grid power for multiple and simultaneous internet user access.

The container was until recently sited in Alexandra township outside Johannesburg, providing subsidised internet access to youths and paying customers.

“This kind of business would definitely fly in Nigeria. We have an enterprising population, but electricity lets us down. This is a great product for making money while you uplift the people educationally,” observed Nigerian journalist Gregory Mmaduakolam.

Culture shock

The big shock of the day came on the other side of Johannesburg. The group, hosted by the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, drove across the city to the informal settlement of Protea South. Here, at the site of recent service delivery protests; journalists came face to face with the human realities of energy – or the lack of it. Having no access to energy drives mass unrest and undermines a whole community’s human dignity.

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A Nigerian visitor (right) discusses electricity pricing with Soweto activist Zodwa Madiba (centre) while blogger Themba KaMathe looks on.

For most of the journalists, the trip was an eye opener and a severe cultural shock. Squalid living conditions and overflowing sewage – something the Nigerians did not expect to find in an urban setting in South Africa – that moved the media group to comment on the extreme disparities in this society.

It was equally surprising to find that the activists we met were fully able to articulate their their cause. They have the courage to take on take big corporations (Eskom) and local government, demanding free – or at least affordable – electricity.

“In Nigeria the government would not allow this. Never!” says Mmaduakolam. “I admire their courage. This gives me a new perspective and an understanding of what their needs are. I think it helps that we can to see for ourselves because their cause deserves prominence in global media.”

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Patties of recycled coal drying in the sun.

One of the striking observations of our visit was that the people of Protea South are not idle when it comes to providing their own power and recycling waste to earn an income. Small rounded black patties of coal waste were laid out neatly in rows to dry in the sun. These are traded and used for domestic heating. Meanwhile, other residents were raking refuse dumps to recover glass, plastics and metals for sale to commercial recyclers.

South African environmental and energy writer for Beeld newspaper, Elise Tempelhoff, says that from a distance energy issues all seem simple. “But once you get here, engage with the people on the ground and listen to their stories and see how they live, you realize that the issues are complex.”

She adds: “I’m certainly coming back here in the next few days to do a series of stories that will provide proper context and understanding of what the issues are and the history of how they got to be here.”

Not a cent

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Maans van Wyk of the Landless People’s Movement addresses the media group.

Protea South’s more than 6 000 residents are represented in their struggles by the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee; the Landless People’s Movement and also Abahlali baseMjondolo. They mostly draw their electricity illegally from Eskom’s substations, vowing “not to pay a cent for electricity”.

The bold statements of the activists impressed the touring journalists and left them with a strong impression of electricity activism develops collective solidarity and negotiating skills.

“Outside of the dynamism and history of the struggle here in Soweto, the reality is that there is a still a large group of people existing at the lowest level. One can never tell what can come out of that community. You can never sweep them away. They are a reality; a sad one, and government needs to meet them halfway.

“For the level of the information and education that they have, their demands are very legitimate. One can only fault their methods of finding solutions or perspectives to the approach,” says Kande.

“I think they need more exposure and civil education to understand that they need to bring something to the table in their negotiations with the government. It can’t be our way or no way at all”

Mmaduakolam feels that because of the scale of the problems that they have and the democracy that exists in the country, they should rather use the power of the ballot box to get “what they were promised”.

“I wish they could come together in large numbers and use the power of their numbers to effect change. Either they start co-operatives or push one of their own to go and democratically represent them in Parliament.”

A connection can be made between the innovations that the media group saw in the morning and the need for accessible, safe electricity in poor communities. The problem is that solutions get lost in the heat of the moment.

The activists contend that they are not politically ambitious; in fact they reject the path of voter representation because they believe that time has shown that politicians are corrupted by status and wealth.

Who knows whether one day when a new generation of journalists visits Protea South leaders of the movement will be in Parliament spearheading the cause of the poor.

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