AN ESKOM engineer works on power cables. By blaming its workers for labour action leading to Stage 6 load shedding, Eskom is unwittingly reminding us of the importance of workers in the search for solutions to it continuing the electricity crisis, says the writer. African News Agency (ANA archives)
By Dr Trevor Ngwane
IT IS laughable that Eskom is now blaming the workers on strike for Stage 6 load shedding. It has been 14 years of load shedding and we are up to here with excuses. The truth is that there is an electricity crisis that Eskom management and the ANC government cannot solve. But in blaming workers for the electricity crisis, Eskom unwittingly reminds us of the importance of workers in the search for solutions.
There can be no solution to the energy crisis without workers.
We cannot only focus on consumption and not production when talking about the electricity crisis. We often complain about no lights in our homes, food rotting in our fridges, robots not working and small businesses losing money. But at the heart of the problem is that in South Africa there is a shortage of electricity, there is not enough electricity for all. This means more electricity must be produced. The question is how that electricity can be produced and who will produce it.
In the conversation about increasing the amount of electricity generated there is a tendency to focus on machines not on workers. There is a focus on Eskom’s old coal power stations, on the malfunctioning new coal plants and on how to increase generation of renewable energy. There is little discussion of workers who produce the electricity with their hands, who build, tend, and repair the machines, and who lay the cables that transmit the electricity. We are only reminded of workers when they go on strike and get blamed for the crisis.
The shortage of electricity is only one aspect of the South African crisis. Everything is a crisis.
There is a shortage of jobs, water, houses, clinics, schools and public transport. The working class suffers the most from this everyday crisis. This is the story of capitalism. The capitalists and their governments always shift the burden of the capitalist system onto the shoulders of workers.
The Energy Racism Research Report recently published by the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice provided evidence that the black working class suffers the most from the energy crisis.
Today we talk about Stage 6 load shedding, but black working-class areas have been hit by an undeclared Stage 8 for a long time. The research found that Eskom has a special programme called load reduction which only happens in black working-class areas.
The research showed that residents of Mdantsane, Soshanguve, Umlazi and other townships, villages and shack settlements had significantly more power failures than residents of Sandton, Umhlanga Rocks and Constantia. Some areas suffered weeks, months and even years of blackouts because of load reduction, poor servicing, slow response to repair call-ups and failure to upgrade the infrastructure. It is as if there is blanket punishment of all those who live in apartheid geography’s black areas.
Energy racism began during apartheid days when black workers dug out the coal that fired Eskom furnaces and laid out the electricity grid’s pylons. After work they would go home to “native locations” that were not electrified, to “dark cities”. The tragedy is that under the ANC government of national liberation, there are continuities of colonial and apartheid injustices and oppressions.
Workers pay twice for electricity. They pay with their labour and they pay with cash from the meagre wages they receive. The capitalist system brings profit into the production and consumption of electricity. Workers work in bakeries making bread but sleep hungry, they produce cars in factories but don’t have cars. The producers are not benefiting from the fruits of their labour.
The solution to the energy crisis is there in front of us, the workers who produce the energy must enjoy it without paying. Production must not be for profit but to satisfy people’s needs. No capitalist must make a profit from the production of energy. The problem of Eskom is privatisation, commercialisation and financialisation. This is what is stopping Eskom from producing enough energy for all, from producing massive amounts of renewable energy.
Eskom must stop buying renewables from independent power producers the way it is doing buying diesel for its gas turbine plants. Diesel consumption has escalated to nine million litres a day. This is unsustainable. The diesel and the coal, and now the renewable energy, are all being used to make white monopoly capital and the aspirant black bourgeoisie to be rich, at the expense of all.
There can be no solution to the energy crisis if Eskom is run and controlled by the capitalists and the capitalist government. Production must be controlled by the producers. Workers, not bosses, must control Eskom. Only a government run and controlled by the working class can provide energy, food, water, healthcare, education, safety, public transport and jobs for all.
Ngwane is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg.
This article was originally published on IOL