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‘Urban Politics’ in Rural Libode: Residents Protest Extended Power Outages

By Thandokazi Silonisi

Nationwide Eskom protests following rolling power outages across the country (Source: News24, June 2022)

Frustrated residents of Misty Mount, Libode, recently took to the R61 highway in protest at continuing power outages, burning tyres and blocking the road until police came and dispersed the crowd with rubber bullets. The demonstration, which was akin to the kind of service-delivery protests that are commonplace in urban areas, was mounted after power cuts introduced by South Africa’s state provider, Eskom, were exacerbated by a damaged and malfunctioning grid, leaving the local community without electricity for weeks on end. The action also came amid mounting complaints at the rising price of electricity which have been compounded by fears among some residents that they are paying for power that is being illegally siphoned off the grid.

Youth burn tires in service delivery protest nationwide (Source: Daily Maverick, May 2023)

Power outages in Misty Mount are common. When I first arrived there, a huge thunderstorm downed trees which fell across power lines. As a result, there was no electricity for two weeks. On another occasion, the power cut about 40 minutes before scheduled “load shedding” (power cuts that have been introduced nationwide to save electricity) and only returned two days later. Sis’ Ncesh, a local domestic worker, told me that a few weeks prior to my arrival there had been no power for two weeks.

The most recent lengthy power outage started in the last week of May and lasted until the beginning of June. After three days without power, a local resident went through the area with a megaphone calling people to a meeting to address the issue. The meeting that Sunday evening was quite poorly attended, according to local headwoman Mam’ Zandile Mapipa, because it was impromptu and was held late. According to Bhut’ Siphe, a local gardener who attended, most of those present were young people.

A local headman, Mr Luwaca, addressed the meeting at which it was suggested that a protest be organised. Subsequently, a crowd of residents, most of them young, went and blocked the R61 with burning tyres. The police were reportedly called to the scene after an ambulance was obstructed by the demonstrators. They fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. No arrests took place; and no significant injuries were reported.

Subsequently, the local ward councillor spoke against the actions of those who had encouraged the protest and urged the community not to take such measures, particularly if they had not aired their grievances with him first. In this regard, community meetings are held on a regular basis in Misty Mount so that residents can be updated by local leaders and officials about the delivery of services and facilities, including electricity, roads and public housing; and residents raise any concerns that they may have. Much of the Nyandeni Municipality’s budget is spent on such services and there is a general expectation among the local population that they should be provided. Hence the dissatisfaction over the outages.

However, in this instance, the way in which grievances were expressed – with youth at the forefront of a relatively spontaneous protest – raises questions about how rural politics are currently being organised and how this may be changing. Service-delivery protests, while common in urban areas and increasingly in small towns and peri-urban areas, have not been a particularly familiar sight in rural areas. However, this case of residents coming together to use protest rather than semi-official meetings, and their means of communicating their grievances, may indicate that change is afoot. The events that took place in Misty Mount show that rural people are getting organised in new ways – and that they are adopting what were previously considered to be “urban politics”.

The emergence of this new form of politics may in part be a product of South Africa’s power crisis – a response to the expectation of a well-functioning electricity supply which has been frustrated by Eskom’s load shedding and the implications of widespread illegal electricity connections known locally as ukutsweba.

The morning after the protest, Mam’ Zandile, Mr Luwaca and a local committee member went to Eskom’s offices in the area’s main town, Mthatha. Although, the security guard there tried to turn them away as they did not have an appointment, they calmly insisted on speaking to the person in charge of the electricity supply to Misty Mount. As a result, they won an audience with a manager of the state power company, Mr Mthikrakra, who heard their grievances and promised to fix the problem that day. The power was restored that afternoon.

Mr Mthikrakra said that the fragility of the power supply to Misty Mount was a result of the many illegal connections in the area which siphoned off power and which were overloading the grid. He said that only a small minority of residents were paying for their electricity.

This issue of illegal electricity connections has been a common topic of conversation in the village. My host there, Popane Msengi, complains about the rising cost of electricity: “Can you believe that I buy electricity at the rate of R50 a day.” She has asked other home owners about how much they are paying and has instructed her domestic worker, Sis’ Ncesh, to keep a close eye on how the electricity is being used.

The fear is that those who are buying their electricity are being charged extra for the power that is being siphoned off by those with illegal connections says Mam’ Zandile. In one case, Eskom cut the power supply to a local household after it was found that one of the sons, unbeknown to his elderly parents, had patched other people into his home’s supply and had been charging them for this. The state provider cut off the home’s power and said that the householders had to settle a large bill before their electricity would be reconnected.

An unstable power supply; expensive electricity; and the depredations of load shedding persist; and the struggle for livelihoods in rural areas is being affected. In this context, the response of rural residents seems increasingly to be taking an urban political form: service-delivery protests; illegal connections, ukutsweba, which, historically, were first established in townships under apartheid in defiance of municipal efforts to collect rates; and, increasingly, the theft of power lines by izinyoka, which has been described as a response to apartheid township architecture. It seems that, as electrification of rural areas has spread, these kinds of political responses also have spread, particularly as means of addressing current power outages.

In this context, there should be more research on the impacts of load shedding on rural economies to complement the work that has been conducted on how the power cuts have affected small and medium enterprises in the main cities. In addition, there should be research into the electricity spending habits of rural residents, which may shed light on how low-income households fare in the context of relatively expensive electricity – and whether and how the price of electricity promotes illegal efforts to siphon off power.

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