Violent protests have broken out in Protea South, an informal settlement adjoining Soweto, where residents have lost patience with the authorities over power supply. There are no surprises in this turn of events. Protesters have set out to burn tyres, hurl stones at police (and have rubber bullets fired in return). For years people in many townships around the country lacked electricity and have resorted to illegally connecting to power points – at risk to their own lives.
Police operations to remove illegal connections have often resulted in violence. Protestors in Alexandra, a township of Johannesburg, have rejected prepaid electricity meters as a solution, saying they cannot afford to pay for the meter boxes. They demand free meters in their homes, to be paid on a monthly account basis at reasonable tariffs, or even free of charge.
The issue is hotly political. In the past few days an attempt by representatives of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Front – a movement in opposition to the ANC government – was chased out of Protea South when they tried to engage people about their complaints. In another incident recently, a resident told ENCA tv news:”We are not going to allow ANC to play their dirty games on us, we are going to steal electricity.”
A brief glance at recent episodes shows that electricity provision, costs, and inconvenience often lead to angry protests and arrests. South Africa’s power supply remains under serious strain since a countrywide blackouts crisis in 2008.
In the current unrest, a power substation has been burnt and barricades erected in the streets. In the chaos following the electricity cut, looters attacked shops and demanded to see the Premier of Gauteng Province to air their grievances. In Fochville, a township in the North West Province, the MEC (Member of the Executive Council) for Safety and Security was forced to feel from angry crowds protesting about lack of service delivery.
Recognising the need to light up Africa for development, US President Barack Obama, speaking in Cape Town, unveiled a $7billion dollar project to increase access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Recent incidents have occurred in Tembisa, Midrand and Kliptown, Soweto. At Medupi, the coal-fired power station under construction near Lephalale in Limpopo province, vandals burnt equipment as labour unrest flared. Meanwhile police in Thokoza on Gauteng’s East Rand have appealed for help from the public in tracking down thieves who vandalised the substation, plunging half of the area into darkness.
At this week’s Powerlines workshops, being held at the IAJ in Johannesburg, the underlying causes and possible long term solutions for electricity shortages will be explored and set in the context of African regional co-operation. We intend to visit the townships to speak to residents and officials on both sides of power disputes, blogging the findings and reporting for various media.
- Graeme Addison, facilitator