All deserve to have electricity

2008-12-09 00:00

In reply to the feature article in The Witness of November 24, “Double standards” by Paddy Hartdegen, the author makes two claims, both equally wrong.

Firstly, the author claims, on the basis of little more than guesswork, that Eskom’s shortages would be resolved “in the blink of an eye” if the state prevented shack dwellers from connecting to basic service supplies. The author provides us with no evidence to support this claim. Indeed, it is a reductio ad absurdum. This country effectively subsidises the cost of electricity to big industrial users (supplying the cheapest electricity in the world) while excluding shack dwellers from the grid. Excluded from safe and affordable energy, poor households self-connect so that they can eat warm food and see a little in the dark — that's hardly criminal. Even for those of us with little technical or scientific expertise, it should be clear that rational and humane solutions to the problems and complexities of national service provision are not through simply policing the poorest off the electricity grid.

Secondly, the author claims that the government is ignoring the self-connection of basic service supplies in shack settlements. This claim runs contrary to fact. In truth, service disconnections of this kind are routine in shack settlements across South Africa. These disconnections are routinely carried out with a measure of intimidation and violence that would make anyone think twice before calling for their increase.

A typical disconnection is carried out with the help of hired private security officers, routinely armed with guns and live ammunition. Last week alone, in the Arnett Drive settlement in Durban, a man was shot (from behind, through his upper thigh) as he was leaving the toilet, by a municipal security guard in the course of a disconnection. There was no provocation, no altercation; it is even unclear if this man had an electricity supply in his dwelling. Yet he was shot, and stories of this kind can be heard from every major metro area in South Africa.

Such stories, however, raise another, broader concern about the article, namely, that it has become commonplace and is thought acceptable to characterise shack dwellers uniformly as thieves, as “stupid” and as duplicitous opportunists and to slate shack settlements as places of crime and as a danger for “law-abiding South Africans”. This easy, flippant discrimination found in this article should be seriously interrogated. So too should the government’s arming of disconnection teams with deadly weapons.

And finally, what also should be interrogated is the author’s suggestion about who deserves to live “in peace, warmth and light”. It is true that a line exists between those, like the author, who have the luxury to afford or access service provision in this country and those, like the man shot in Arnett Drive, who cannot. But the point that the author misses entirely is that there should not be a line drawn between those who deserve “peace, warmth and light”, and those who do not.

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