South Africa: Black working class fights back

FRFI 162 August / September 2001

ESKOM, the government-owned company which supplies 98% of South Africa’s electricity, is busy cutting off electricity to Soweto residents. Soweto is the biggest township in South Africa, where more than a million black working class people live. According to ESKOM, it is disconnecting 20,000 per month in a bid to recover more than a billion rand (US$120 million) that it claims residents owe.

This is happening under the government of the ANC. In December 2000 the party campaigned and won the local government elections on a ticket of providing free water and free electricity to all South African citizens to meet their basic needs. The government felt compelled to introduce this policy because more than 35% of South Africans are unemployed and about the same number do not have access to clean water and electricity.
The residents of Soweto are not taking the cut-offs lying down. Last year activists formed the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) to fight the cut-offs. This organisation has embarked on increasingly militant action which has attracted youth and militants who are sick and tired of living in darkness because they are poor.

On 21 March 2001, Human Rights Day in South Africa, the SECC marched together with other community organisations against electricity and water cut-offs, evictions from housing and job losses under the banner of the Anti-Privatisation Forum. This is a coalition of trade union, student and community organisations based mostly around Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, fighting against the ANC government’s aggressive privatisation programme which is behind most of the attacks on the working class.

On 9 June 2001 the SECC held its own march attended by about 2,500 people in Soweto. They delivered a memorandum to the Mayor of Johannesburg, Amos Masondo, who still has not bothered to respond to the demands of residents. In frustration the SECC picketed the Mayor’s suburban house, cut his water supply to make him feel what the people are feeling, and delivered a letter giving the Mayor an ultimatum to respond to the people who elected him and in whose name he runs the city. The visit to the Mayor’s house took place on 30 June, the eve of the promised implementation of the policy of free water and free electricity. So far this promise has not been fulfilled.

The main SECC tactic is their reconnection campaign called Operation Khanyisa (‘light up’ in Zulu). When ESKOM cuts off electricity, members of the SECC reconnect. The reconnections are made by members of the community and activists trained how to do this by SECC. At a rally on 21 July the SECC proposed a payment boycott to the people of Soweto.

Behind the massive cut-offs are the government’s plans to privatise ESKOM. Last year the Minister of Public Enterprises, Jeff Radebe, announced that ESKOM must recover all debts in order to be competitive and be attractive to potential buyers. Radebe is a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party. This party is in a formal alliance with the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the largest trade union federation in the country. The Alliance is used to contain militancy and undermine the independence of organised labour. However, this might soon change as workers feel the pinch of neoliberal attacks and begin to push their leaders for a fight back. Two unions organising in ESKOM might go on a wage strike soon – something which will strengthen the struggle for affordable electricity.

The combativity shown by the Soweto residents in the struggle for affordable electricity has inspired many working class people to realise that they can no longer sit back whilst their rights are denied in favour of imperialist interests and their local lackeys. Fighting for electricity enables working people to regain an important part of their lives. The working class in South Africa is under severe attack from neoliberal policies which make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Apartheid and class discrimination continue under a new guise; this time supervised by a class collaborationist black leadership which is implementing the bosses’ class agenda.

Trevor Ngwane


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