Category Archives: Earthlife

Daily News: Why Eskom will never beat the reconnectors

This article was also published in The Star as ‘Private Profits from Public Utility’ on 3 February.

Why Eskom will never beat the reconnectors

February 01, 2010 Edition 1

Richard Pithouse

The fiasco at Eskom has been oscillating between tragedy and farce at such a rate that it’s become difficult to tell them apart.

No one in their right mind is likely to disagree that Eskom, an institution that should serve the public good, has been captured by an avaricious elite and turned into a vampiric excrescence on our society.

In the wake of Jacob Maroga’s incredible demand for an R85 million golden handshake even Parliament has felt the need to pressurise the cabinet to end the ‘looting’ at parastatals.

But whatever steps are taken to address the fiasco, it seems clear enough that much of the price for the extravagant folly at Megawatt Park will be paid by ordinary people. And ordinary people will, of course, have no say in how the deal goes down.

The National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) public hearings into tariff increases were, as mandated public participation exercises usually are in South Africa, entirely closed to any meaningful public engagement.

At the Midrand hearings representatives from Earthlife and the Anti-Privatisation Forum were locked out of the venue by security guards, and then assaulted and arrested.

The charges of public violence were dropped the next day in what has become a standard practice across the country in which the state misuses the power of arrest as an instant punishment for citizens taking democracy seriously.

Already there are many people who have a legal electricity connection, but have to get up at four in the morning to chop wood to heat water and cook food because they just can’t afford to pay for electricity – along with school fees, transport, medical costs and all the rest.

Under these conditions unlawful reconnections are a popular strategy to sustain access to electricity.

The practice is ubiquitous, but the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) first organised it and gave it a public political expression.

Shack dwellers, many of whom have not been connected to the grid by the state, also appropriate electricity. This is not at all unique to South Africa. On the contrary, it is one of the universal features of shack life linking up Lagos, Istanbul, Bombay, Rio and Joburg as nodes in a decidedly international mode of urban life.

Neither Eskom’s izinyoka campaign, that tried to present the people who install self-organised electricity connections as snakes, nor the often violent raids of police and the private security companies contracted to municipalities, have had any success in teaching people to accept that they do not deserve to have electricity.

The police raids often extend beyond ripping out self-organised electricity connections, and it’s not unusual for them to include the confiscation of all electrical appliances, with DVD players seeming to be most at risk, on the grounds that they must be stolen.

But, as the police disconnect, people reconnect, and as the police steal people’s equipment, they replace it. In some cases the police go through periods of disconnecting daily, and so people disconnect themselves every morning and reconnect themselves every evening.


When middle class residents inform on their poor neighbours it has become common for shack dwellers to respond to police raids by disconnecting their middle class neighbours en masse – usually at supper time.

Sometimes an explanatory note is left at the electricity box. Once this has been done three or four times, an understanding is usually reached to live and let live.

The reality is that the attempt to stop unlawful connections has about as much chance of success as influx control had in the 1980s, or, for that matter, as attempts to stop middle class people sharing music and software.

In some cases self-organised connections are arranged in a haphazard and individualised way, and while some people are careful to use and to bury properly insulated wire, others are not.

There are real risks when open wires are left dangling in dense settlements and people have been killed. But people are also killed in shack fires, and when connections are arranged in a carefully organised and safe way by a well organised community organisation or social movement, they can be done very safely and keep whole communities safe from fire.

Following the pioneering struggle of the SECC, popular organisations and movements around the country refer to the work of organising the appropriation of electricity collectively, safely and without profit as “Operation Khanyisa”.

It is not unusual for the media to respond to self-organised electricity connections with a sometimes racialised hostility and paranoia bordering on hysteria.

Following propagandistic statements from the police and politicians, cable theft and self-organised electricity connections are routinely conflated, even though it is quite obvious that these are two entirely different practices organised by different people for different purposes.

Deaths from shack fires are routinely ascribed to drunkenness rather than an absence of electricity, but when connections are made recklessly, this is seized upon to de-legitimise all self-organised connections – including those undertaken with exemplary care.

It is regularly asserted, as if it were a fact, that all self-organised connections are made for payment. And, predictably, when Eskom’s executive looting, poor planning and massive subsidies to smelters leads to load-shedding, some newspapers are quick to blame “theft” by the poor for the crisis.

A life without electricity is one in which shack fires are a constant threat, cellphones can’t be charged and basic daily tasks become time consuming, repetitive and dangerous. It also leaves people feeling structurally excluded from access to a modern life.


There is no doubt that a critical mass of people are not willing to accept that they should be consigned to systemic exclusion and that they see the activity of appropriating electricity as a fundamentally necessary, decent and social activity.

The social definition of theft is something that changes over time, and that is understood differently from different perspectives.

In the words of a famous old English poem,
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

Who is really at fault when the boss of a public utility has entirely fatuous personal expenses that run into the millions and some of the “snakes” who have connected themselves up to the wires that carry the means to heat and light past them have nothing more than a couple of slices of white bread and a cup of sweet tea to cook up for supper?

In its original sense privatisation was about the process of social exclusion via private appropriation rather than the question of whether or not an institution was owned by the state or private power.

In contemporary South Africa, state ownership of key organisations is producing a degree of social exclusion and private enrichment every bit as perverse as that produced by private ownership. It makes perfect sense to hold Eskom and MTN in the same contempt.

As exclusion deepens in the wake of the Eskom crisis, people will respond with increasing popular appropriation.

For as long as Eskom continues to see public utilities as an opportunity for private profit, and electricity as a commodity for private consumption rather than a common good, civil society should invoke the tradition of civil disobedience and support communities and popular movements to resist state repression while they organise to appropriate electricity on a non- commodified, safe and carefully disciplined basis.