No power, no water, no land

!zodwa madiba soweto electricity crisis committee in taxi 100_7528

Zodwa Madiba of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee speaks to journalists in their taxi.

The streets are deeply rutted and run with stinking effluent. The wasted trees rustle dryly in a dusty wind. The signs of protest are everywhere: a burnt patch on the tarred main road where a tyre was ignited; rocks and stones littering the tarmac; a barricade of rocks to prevent police vehicles from entering the squatter township – more politely known as an informal settlement. Yet despite the horrific conditions, the people are cheerful, upbeat, and mutually supportive. A natural leader, Maans van Wyk, emerges from a knot of singing, dancing members of the Landless People’s Movement, who have come to welcome us. Their spirit undimmed by the suppression of their protest, they are both happy and militant. “Our trust is broken,” he says, in words to that effect. “We stop traffic and burn down things to express our demands.” Asked if he would stand for elected office he says no because once people become politicians their priorities change. The people have waited more than 20 years to receive the jobs, housing, electricity and water promised to them. Nothing has happened. The people pay taxes in the form of VAT on consumer goods and consider that this should cover free electricity and other services. Politicians, they say, drive big cars and live in expensive houses, drawing huge salaries. What happened to their social conscience? The state can afford to fund free electricity for the people if it can afford to pay these politicians. So the people have seized things for themselves. They connect electricity illegally. Over our heads are spanned the wires that lead from electricity boxes where black cables snake away into the grass – the isinyoka, or snakes that carry power. The wires are uninsulated and look exceedingly dangerous, exposed to the elements, crudely joined, and criss-crossing between shacks where children play in the yards. We are a group of Nigerian and South African journalists, come to see what the unrest in Protea South township was all about. Last week, crowds angrily chased off police and officials, demanding to see the Premier of the Province (who did not come). Things have settled down; most of those arrested have been bailed out; but the mood simmers. We are welcomed as journalists who may throw some light on the issues and give the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) some support. Some of our Nigerian visitors are disposed to argue about the need for electricity to be paid for. There is a faint whiff of xenophobia in the air as the Nigerians make their point: the locals may not take kindly to this advice. !maans van wyk protea south LPM 100_7649We walk over to a burnt power unit where the connecting line to the shacks has been severed. Maans explains that the formal housing nearby is supplied from this box. When people from the informal settlement connect illegally, home-owners become livid and fighting breaks out between the two groups. The owners still have to pay for power; and illegal connections push up their bills and cause outages. Is there a solution in sight? Zodwa Madiba, an organiser for the SECC, is not hopeful for a fast resolution of service delivery issues. “We have had many meeting with Eskom” [the power utility], she explains, “they know us and they know what we want.” A few minor concessions may be on the way but Eskom is adamant that energy must be paid for. The committee has been going since 2000 and has achieved little: there is a long road ahead for those who believe that power should be free. “We talk to them but they don’t listen,” she tells me, referring to the many meetings with electricity officials. “We will go on with our protests.”

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