Jan/Feb 2002 - VOLUME 23 - NUMBER 1 & 2
P r i v a t i z a t i o n : R i p - O f f s a n d R e s i s t a n c e
Power to the People in South Africa
By Patrick Bond
Operation Khanyisa! and the
Fight Against Electricity Privatization
Johannesburg Its a criminal gang, announced
Jeff Radebe, the African National Congress (ANC) Minister of Public Enterprises,
at a December news conference.
He was blasting activists of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee
(SECC) for their Operation Khanyisa! Reconnect the Power!
campaign. Over six months, more than 3,000 families had their electricity
supplies illegally switched back on, after being left in darkness when
they could not afford to pay their enormous monthly bills. SECC volunteers
risk electrocution to do the work, and charge their neighbors nothing
for the service.
Radebe, ironically, is a leading member of the South African Communist
Party. In May 1999, when Thabo Mbeki was elected president, Radebe was
mandated to privatize and commercialize Pretorias largest government-owned
The Soweto confrontation was not his first brush with activists who brand
him a sellout. In August, he used similar language to scorn the two million
member Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which embarked
on a two-day national strike against the planned privatization of electricity,
telecommunications and transport. Mbeki and Radebe were furious because
the strike distracted attention from the UN World Conference Against Racism,
which opened in the South African city of Durban the next day.
The Electricity Supply Commission, still known by its Afrikaans acronym,
Eskom, is the most important South African government-owned enterprise,
and the fourth largest non-petroleum power company in the world. It proudly
claims to be one of the New South Africas success stories, having
provided electricity to more than 300,000 new households each year. Yet
many tens of thousands cannot afford the full-cost-recovery policy (meaning
that each consumer must pay the full cost of the electricity they use,
without subsidies from industrial and other large users to small consumers)
that Pretorias minerals and energy ministry adopted in 1998.
Charges Against ESKOM
In spite of its limited success in connecting new households to the electricity
grid, Eskom has become an even bigger target of dissent. Having fired
more than 40,000 of its 85,000 workers during the early 1990s, thanks
to mechanization and overcapacity, the utility tried to outsource and
corporatize several key operations in recent years, drawing the ire of
The government has told the metalworkers and mineworkers unions that
while it is privatizing electricity generation rights, Eskoms transmission
and distribution operations will remain state-owned. The South African
cabinet is expected to approve the restructuring program in February.
But unions remain worried that further commercialization will cost still
more jobs in an economy that has lost more than a million formal sector
jobs since the early 1990s.
Moreover, Eskom gets sustained heat from environmentalists who complain
that its massive coal-burning plants still do not have enough sulfur-scrubbing
equipment. Eskoms investments in alternative renewable energy have
been negligible, notwithstanding the countrys abundant solar and
wind power. Instead, Eskom is spending tens of millions of dollars to
develop a prototype pebble-bed nuclear reactor, alongside a British partner
which has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy [See Too Cheap to Deter,
Multinational Monitor, November 2001].
The South African utility has been enmeshed in further controversy in
Mozambique. Eskom relies upon hydropower from Mozambiques huge Cahorra
Bassa Dam, whose Portuguese operators claimed in early January that the
$0.003 per kilowatt/hour that Eskom was paying represented price extortion
(Sowetans pay nearly 10 times that amount for each retail kilowatt hour).
Because the transmission lines from the dam go through South Africas
eastern province before returning to the Mozambican capital of Maputo,
the huge hydroelectricity consumption of that citys Mozal aluminum
furnace comes from Eskom.
Mozambique must buy the processed electricity back from South Africa
in U.S. dollars, having sold it to South Africa in the South African currency,
rands. The price is far in excess of what it would pay if it received
electricity direct from Cahorra Bassa and did not have to rely on an arrangement
established during the early 1970s colonial period, when Portugal and
Pretoria collaborated to keep blacks out of power. Because of the pricing
problem, Mozambique is considering adding two more dams below Cahorra
Bassa on the Zambezi River. But these proposals have faced protests from
Ngwane has been central not only to the SECCs success, but to a
provincial and national Anti-Privatization Forum that will serve as the
main activist host for protesters at the upcoming Johannesburg World Summit
on Sustainable Development. Known as Rio+10, the August 26-September
4 conference will be the worlds largest-ever conference, with 193
heads of state and 63,000 delegates expected.
In an attempt to defuse the growing SECC-led protests against Eskom,
in December, Radebe and an allied community network, the South African
National Civic Organization, ventured to the historic Orlando Hall in
Soweto. They urged residents to put their Eskom payment boycott behind
them, and repay half their arrears plus make regular payments.
Radebe and Eskom officials complain about a culture of nonpayment
among Soweto residents, including residents they say have the means to
Nonsense, retorts Ngwane, The people who cant
pay the high costs of electricity genuinely cant afford to, and
Eskoms billing is so erratic that no one really trusts the company
to tell them what is owed. He ridicules the ANC for having promised
a lifeline amount of free electricity a guaranteed minimum supply
to meet families basic needs in the 2000 municipal elections,
in which Ngwane failed to win a council seat running as an independent.
The government has not delivered on the ANC promise.
Ngwane says that Operation Khanyisa! has worked. Last October, Eskom
announced it would no longer disconnect those who could not pay their
electricity bill. Peoples Power was responsible for Eskoms
U-turn, says Ngwane. We mobilized tens of thousands of Sowetans
in active protests over the past year. We established professional and
intellectual credibility for our critique of Eskom, even collaborating
on a major Wits University study. We demonstrated at the houses of the
mayor, Amos Masondo and local councilors, and, in the spirit of nonviolent
civil disobedience, we went so far as to disconnect the electricity supplies
of the mayor and councilors to give them a taste of their own medicine.
Ngwane and the SECC promise to keep up the pressure on Eskom. The SECC
is pressing forward with a decommodification strategy for
basic needs. The SECC is calling on Eskom to:
We are lucky, as South Africas social movements, to have
Rio+10 here in August this year, Ngwane says, promising that a similar
humiliation to the Durban anti-racism conference awaits the government,
if it continues privatizing and cutting services.
But Pretoria watches warily. According to a report in Business Day newspaper
last August just prior to the World Conference Against Racism, Part
of the [ANC] strategy championed by Trade and Industry Minister
Alec Erwin, Transport Minister Dullah Omar and Public Enterprises Minister
Jeff Radebe was to seek to caution COSATU members against possible
hijacking of their strike by outside elements such as those protesting
at World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings.
That seems a particular reference to Ngwane, who was featured in a film
popular among critics of corporate globalization, Two Trevors go
to Washington. The film, which aired on South African network television,
showed Ngwane in street protests during April 2000 meetings of the IMF
and World Bank in Washington, D.C. Those meetings were chaired by the
conservative South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel.
The dreadlocked Soweto activist smiles at mention of government tactics to marginalize the protests against privatization. Radebes threats are an attempt at divide-and-rule. He is trying to isolate our organization and to neutralize COSATU so as to break the unity of the community and unions. But the boycott of Eskom will continue.
Patrick Bond is a political economist at the University of the Witwatersrand and a Multinational Monitor contributing writer. His recent books on South Africa include Unsustainable South Africa (forthcoming, 2002), Against Global Apartheid (2001), Elite Transition (2000) and Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal (2000).