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Visualising Decolonisation: A comment on Electricity

Updated: Jun 12, 2018

[Article Published Daily Maverick 15 January 2017, Author Brian Kamanzi, link: ]

"Re-Distribution Lines" taken at Marikana, South Africa

Harnessing electrical energy, distributing it across vast expanses and making use of it as a convenient means of powering an unending number of actuators, computing devices, telecommunication applications and so on has become one of the defining shifts in technology in recent human history.

As I begin to think through its historical application in South Africa I cannot help but laugh and consider that probably the earliest known complex life forms to make use of electrical energy are in fact electric eels! Beyond our seabound predecessors, as we begin to map the historical development of the harnessing of electricity for public or private use, in South Africa we note that the associated technologies and infrastructure are inseparable from the social, political and economic questions of the day.

By consequence, as we advocate for decolonisation and reject oppressive aspects of the colonial condition, it is incumbent upon us to reimagine different pathways forward in all aspects of our life; this relates in particular to the technologies that offer the potential to drastically improve the quality of life of many.

Looking back at the development of telegraphy in South Africa we go back as early as 1859 when a private enterprise sent the first message to the residence of Mr Pickering at the Roodebloem estate in the Cape Colony. The message was, “Ship coming in with deals – do you want any?” A year later, a public telegraph service went live between Simon’s Town and Cape Town. Electric lighting arrived first at a scale for public use in South Africa through the installation of electric street lamps on Adderley Street in Cape Town in 1881. In 1883, the railways became the first bulk electricity consumers in the country working with the newly established Anglo-African Electric Light company.

According to the heritage files at Eskom, the infamous diamond mining city of Kimberley became the first city in Africa to have an extensive electric lighting system turned on, in 1882, this even preceding London which was still warmed by the glow of gas lighting at the time.

Chronologically, the European settler government’s House of Assembly in Cape Town was lit by incandescent bulbs shortly after that same year, followed by underground mining lights and private electric lighting for the wealthy European diaspora in several sites across the country before the end of 1890.

The early cases of electrification on the South African territory listed above potentially offer us important insights on the historical relationship between the advent of capitalism as an economic system and the development of infrastructure over time.

More specifically to our context in South Africa, in this case, the development of infrastructure and the context of “innovation” of electrical technologies then have their root in the colonial era, anchored in economic practices such as the mining of natural resources and industries that facilitate extraction out of the land of the continent primarily for accumulation of a local settler elite and imperial Europe. Johannesburg’s introduction to electric lighting came as a result of the discovery of gold in the region, subsequently necessitating some of the first power plants in the country.

After the advent of power stations, with the first municipal electricity service being made available in Rondebosch, we can perhaps begin think about the evolving nature of the state, who it regards as citizens at different times and what kind of demands those it attempts to govern provide – in this way we must caution ourselves against disregarding the changing meaning of “public” and “private” through our history.

While land in South Africa has changed hands through conquest, particularly since 1652, it is perhaps the realisation of the Natives Land Act of 1913 that is the most consolidated machine of dispossession and reallocation to a racial minority. Among the countless effects of this policy became the reification of the relationship between “race” and “class” along with the rapid expansion of existing informal settlements and bifurcation of society between rural and urban.

As the fabricated African Bantustans came into existence, with their political leadership tied into subordination with Afrikaner nationalists in indirect rule, state services and budgetary allocations distributed wealth on a tiered system whose ramifications can be seen physically by the networks of water, sanitation and electricity through the towns and cities. Traditional leaders, local government officials and African middle classes enjoyed expanding services, albeit undoubtedly unequal to white areas, while the rural and urban working classes bore the brunt of forced migration, disruption of the possibilities of subsistence farming and enjoyed little prospect of demanding the expansions of public services.

The devastating impact of this unashamedly unequal system on the access to basic electricity as a service has become a political tool for the present-day state to evade responsibility to provide “basic services” regularly; however, this should not discourage us at large to grapple with what genuine hurdles this provides to contemporary struggles for a more just society.

The negotiated settlement of 1994 and the signing of the South African Constitution in 1996 heralded the fall of formal apartheid and postured to grant equal rights to all citizens, many of which, like housing, healthcare and education, were to be “progressively realised” over time. The ruling ANC attempted to move towards a social democratic platform that employed many social reforms. Electrification access levels, for example, is said to have been at around 50% at 1994, purportedly 34% in 1990, and over 84% in 2011. What this implies is that in a rapid period of time the very nature of the use of electricity in our society has come to shift dramatically.

The state has also introduced a “Free Basic Energy” allocation for its citizens offering 50kW per month in each municipality. These reforms unfortunately, over 20 years later, ring hollow in the hearts of many in the light of poor quality housing in the post-’94 Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) and poor government service delivery.

As the use of electricity became increasingly “public” and integrated into the social, political and economic life of the majority, the technological constraints of distribution and generation shifted globally. Coal-fired power stations particularly, and the use of petroleum more generally, predominantly in the First World, powered the engines of the first industrial revolutions and contributed to the mass pollution that is broadly acknowledged to cause climate change, which has been linked with numerous phenomena in the natural world that have caused death and devastation across many a species.

The affordability of and access to electricity for the majority have also become key questions as the mercantile, elite beginnings of electrification in places like South Africa begin to be retooled and reorientated. The hidden tragedy of it all lies not necessarily in the rhetoric in Parliament or in the fiery streets of protest, but beneath the very ground where the networks routing energy throughout the body of the country visualise, echo and radiate exclusion and inequality in ways that will never be resolved by apologies, commissions or historic speeches but by material, intentional interventions under the control of those who need it the most.

The recent introduction of low-cost solar panels and decreasing wind energy costs have opened up new possibilities in a country which historically has relied upon coal as the backbone of energy production. Solar panels in particular, I would encourage, offer us radical alternatives to the practical constraints of the inequality evident in the physical grid and its charged relationship with the “land question”, most clearly in urban spaces.

Through solar panels, for example, we can begin to conceptualise decentralised alternatives to electrification that do not rely on proximity to preferred government financing streams to determine the pace, shape and extent of our infrastructure and development – that is to say, solar technologies, by virtue of their lowering unit cost, are perhaps a technology better suited to local democratic control than large infrastructure projects in capitalist state capture by elite interests.

Looking abroad, this very point comes alive in the massive intra-continental infrastructure project, the “Grand Inga dam”, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The resource-rich DRC, since gaining flag-independence, has been wrought by civil war and foreign, mostly Western, ownership of mines and other natural resources. In 2015, less than 10% of the population had the benefit of electrification, which sets up a situation in which the massive infrastructure project destined to benefit mines and railways before “the people” is set to resemble the tragic colonial experience of our own in South Africa. This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth given that several South African mining companies have significant stakes in the region and in the Grand Inga project. The conversations on decolonisation beyond South Africa demonstrate the importance and connectedness of the ghost of Cecil John Rhodes to the lands that have yet to deal decisively with their legacy.

Momentarily reflecting once more on the post-1994 political challenges of state capacity we are perhaps collectively yet to engage publicly with the extent to which we have failed to develop the technical capacity to build for tomorrow’s challenges – let alone yesterday’s. The conclusion of the negotiated settlement and the offering of forgiveness to those who never apologised has meant that a skills cold war in the parastatals has been building. Affirmative action policies created bitterness and distrust with skilled white, older technicians and engineers and naive political faith in a common rainbow project leaving swarms of young black technologists of various kinds vulnerable to being outmanoeuvred and forced into a dependency on the functionaries of the old regime.

The big question for tomorrow’s “decolonisation” electrification plan is, of course, who will do the work? What skills are available? Who has them and what impact does that have on those movements’ long-term strategic decision-making? I would argue here that in this sense the curriculum and financing debates with #FeesMustFall are the crucial battlegrounds of tomorrow, whether one sees the liberatory path to be within the state companies or beyond to the likes of co-operative federations.

In an online discussion with activist and scholar Dr Yvette Abrahams, I was alerted to public statements and a conference hosted by the union Numsa on a “Civil Society statement on the electricity crisis”. The statement admonished the rising debt of Eskom, democratisation and privatisation of energy – particularly renewable energy – issues surrounding free basic electricity and so on.

In my ignorance I was quite taken aback to go through some of the documents and promptly shared them with some colleagues who had also graduated from electrical engineering programmes at top South African universities. None of the several I had engaged with said that they had worked on the listed topics in university in a manner that alerted them to the approaches outlined by the Numsa conference. My sense here from this is that in the curriculum debates in the engineering, built environment and natural sciences we would be cheating ourselves if we did not press home that there is more to be overhauled than simply the introduction of more authors from Africa as detractors often suggest.

We recall Vladimir Lenin’s assertion affirming the central importance of electrification to the achievement of communism when he stated, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” The task for us more generally today is to debate, organise, build plans and work towards political futures that lie beyond the limitations defined by the constraints of the colonial condition and to dare to visualise “decolonisation” and democratisation even through the very cables, pipelines and roads in our cities and towns that were not built for us but which have come to house us. Here we remember that, much like energy, the will of the people can never be created nor destroyed – ours is to conserve and transform.

A luta continua. DM

[Article Published Daily Maverick 15 January 2017, Author Brian Kamanzi, link: ]

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