Words: Trevor Ngwane & Patrick Bond
Soweto’s Cinderella status ignores some basic truths about the unequal supply of water and electricity. The poor are being ripped-off—but they are also fighting back
If Soweto is allegedly a transforming, vibrant suburb today, this is partly a function of sustained post-apartheid social protest and a strong bounce-back from broken constitutional promises. The dead hand of bureaucratic sloth, the sharp heel of the police boot, and the soothing words of political opportunists distract many from examining the self-reliance of the township’s social movements— especially local City of Johannesburg councillors.
In March 2011, a verbal battle raged between the then chair of the city’s environment committee, Sol Cowan (African National Congress), and opposition councillor Cameron MacKenzie (Democratic Alliance). Cowan announced that, under ANC rule, Soweto “has undergone transformation from a dormitory city of the apartheid era to a place the residents speak fondly of”. MacKenzie did not question the hubris, but instead accused the ANC of “channelling most of the city’s resources” to Soweto, at the expense of Joburg’s upper middle class suburbs. For MacKenzie, the city government is allegedly against the city’s elites, and unappreciative of who pays taxes.
The aim of such ideological posturing about Soweto is to defend privileges gained under apartheid. Another myth in the same narrative is the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps small-enterprise culture that is said to be taking root in a magnificently refurbished Soweto. Enter Soweto from the east, past Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, and you will encounter Elias Motsoaledi informal settlement, a community that lives without proper houses, roads, electricity and sanitation. There are more than a dozen impoverished communities like this in Soweto. Entering Soweto from the north, along the M10 through Orlando, you will see the old red brick houses built by apartheid planners in Orlando East —they are known as “matchbox” houses—crowded in by as much as a dozen shacks on a single yard. Unemployment, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and violence against women and children are facts of life that contradict Soweto’s Cinderella status. Access to electricity is insecure because of the exorbitant rise in Eskom’s bills. City Power, a self-contained business formed in November 2000 and wholly owned by the City of Johannesburg, provides electricity price concessions for pensioners and poor people living in wealthier suburbs, while Eskom exploits Soweto, as has been the case since 1988.
Unemployment, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and violence against women and children are facts of life that contradict Soweto’s Cinderella status.
As a result, in parts of Soweto’s Chiawelo neighbourhood, for example, poor people resort to unclean, unsafe energy sources: open fires, braziers, paraffin and candles. In many such areas, Eskom installed the dreaded “green box”, a tamper-proof metal meter that can— through electrocution—defeat even the reconnection skills of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC). Founded in 2000, the SECC aim’s to re-connect poor people disconnected by a company that gifts the world’s largest mining house, BHP Billiton, an annual R11,5 billion subsidy, at the expense of the masses whose average bill has risen by more than 150% since 2008. A large part of the reason for these price hikes is Eskom’s new 4,800-megawatt dry-cooled coal- fired power station Medupi, at a cost of R105 billion. When it opens Medupi will be the world’s third largest power station and one of the worst contributors to climate change— it will emit 25 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Sowetans will also soon be paying upfront for their water. READ FULL ARTICLE IN PRINT EDITION