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[LISTEN] Energy Racism Amidst the Electricity Crisis

May 05, 2022

Umm Muhammed Umar

The Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, which is part of the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg, has released a report into research done on the impact of the electricity crisis on middle class black South Africans. The report is titled Energy Racism, the Electricity Crisis in South Africa. Radio Islam spoke to UJ’s Professor Luke Sinwell.

Prof Sinwell said they wanted to know about the experiences of ordinary black township residents, in an area of Pimville, Soweto, called Sun Valley. Residents there had been cut off from electricity for 14 months, when researchers went there in 2021. He said, “So we wanted to look at the crisis, which is normally understood from the top down, or blanket statements are often made, or we get a policy-oriented approach. So, instead of doing that, we wanted to look at what is happening from below.” Prof Sinwell added, “So, you’re looking at the experiences and responses of ordinary people, and that gives you a different view……these are actually amongst the people who are marginalized in terms of accessing electricity or energy and it gives you a different view.” He said that they had come up with the term ‘energy racism’ to describe people’s experiences with the crisis in this community, as well as others elsewhere in the country.

While more people have access to electricity, the research found  black working-class communities were bearing the brunt of the electricity crisis. They had no electricity during apartheid, and it seems that nothing has changed for them in this regard, in the new South Africa. Prof Sinwell said, “you can have access to electricity; you can have the grids for electricity, for example, but that doesn’t mean that you can afford to pay for it.” He added, “if you’re making less money – like in this particular area of Sun Valley, the incomes would be relatively low – you’d have a lot of unemployed people, as well as pensioners, so, obviously, if you’re making R3000 per month, you’re paying a greater proportion of your money on electricity than a more middle income professional.”

Prof Sinwell said that they had also found that there was ‘load reduction’ taking place, almost exclusively, in poor informal settlements and townships. Load reduction was a formalised policy at Eskom, introduced during the lockdown in 2020. He said that it was the ‘punishment’ that Eskom meted out to so-called non-paying communities – if some people did not pay or could not afford to pay, everyone in that community suffered load reduction, as opposed to load shedding.  He said, “load reduction is where whether or not you’re willing to pay, you still get cut off.” This was “linked to some unwillingness to pay, some people not being able to afford to pay, but all those historical black townships being the ones who are faced with this kind of punishment.” He said that this was discrimination against low-income areas.

In conclusion Prof Sinwell suggested that there needed to be, at the very least, a system whereby one paid for electricity in proportion to one’s income, or where every household had a certain amount of electricity that one received without paying for it, as is done with water. He said, “This could also be subsidized by corporations who are all paying, like they did during apartheid, much less than residents are paying.”

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