No lights, no rights

2008-01-19 00:00

South Africa’s constitution is rightly regarded as a model for the modern African democracy. As the preamble states, the state is committed to the improvement of the quality of life of all its citizens. At the heart of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights and among the rights specifically protected are those to health care services, including emergency treatment, to food and water, and to personal security. It is arguable that in today’s world, quality of life is inextricably linked to the provision of electricity. Indeed, the assumption that communities which still lack electricity are seriously disadvantaged surely underlies the government’s drive to extend Eskom’s network to previously unsupplied areas. By much the same token, the provision of (for example) contemporary health care depends very largely on the supply of electrical power.

In modern hospitals and clinics, as also in modern factories, shops, offices and homes, electricity has become not a luxury but a basic essential and while the extension of power supplies to previously disadvantaged communities greatly enhances the quality of life there, so the failure of the supply can and does have a devastating effect where it has become a part of normality. It might be far-fetched to suggest that the present power outages amount to a denial of citizens’ fundamental rights, but with surgeons having to suspend operations, food rotting through lack of refrigeration and people falling victim to crime because security systems don’t work, it is certainly arguable that Eskom’s failure to provide a steady, reliable supply is impinging very seriously on their constitutional rights to health care, food and security. As the outages of the past week — both scheduled and unscheduled — have shown, the situation is spiralling out of control and one shudders to think what the increased demand for light and heating in the coming winter will bring.

It is now common cause that the growing crisis can be ascribed directly to the astoundingly poor management of Eskom. While maintenance of the existing generating and supply infrastructure has been neglected, new areas have been brought on line with scant regard for the need for increased generating capacity. And, where Eskom’s own lack of forward planning was not the problem, as Thabo Mbeki has himself conceded, the government’s failure to provide adequate funding has to be blamed. Elsewhere in the world this situation might well have brought the government down. As this country’s maturing electorate comes to make the connection between service delivery and their choices at the polls, perhaps it still may. Moreover, as domestic supplies stutter, the question again arises whether the government should continue to export power to its neighbours. When Mbeki met Mugabe during the week, was electricity on the agenda and, if so, to what effect?

Meanwhile, together with the issue of blame comes that of cost. With business, commerce, industry and every sector of the economy losing a fortune through power failures, who bears the cost? Presumably insurance policies are in place if, for example, a supermarket has to jettison thawed goods, but can the insurance companies seek compensation and, if so, from whom? If there is a collision when the traffic lights fail at an urban intersection or if a patient suffers permanent damage or even dies on the operating table when the power is cut, can the municipality be held liable or Eskom or the government? Or, as so often is the case, will the costs yet again all trickle down to the consumer and the taxpayer, with bigger electricity bills and higher prices all round?

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