South Africa: Covid-19 Exacerbates Old Electricity Struggle

Power lines (file photo).

The coronavirus lockdown has added new dimensions to a decades-long struggle for electricity in the far west of Soweto, where residents have challenged the situation fiercely in recent weeks.

A 26-year struggle for electricity has erupted in the Doornkop shack settlement on the western outskirts of Soweto over the past two weeks, resulting in skirmishes between residents and the police. Residents got up in the early hours to shut down the R558 - a major economic thoroughfare servicing the nearby Harmony Doornkop gold mine and Protea Glen Mall - before being met with rubber bullets and tear gas from South African Police Service and Johannesburg Metro Police Department officers.

In a series of emails between May and August, the residents made numerous requests to meet with City of Johannesburg manager Ndivhoniswani Lukhwareni to discuss the electrification of the settlement. Lukhwareni's office did not respond to questions about why the municipality has failed to meet the residents throughout the Covid-19 lockdown.

Founded in 1993, when tenants unable to afford rent in nearby Doornkop Extension 4 built new homes on an empty piece of land, the Doornkop shack settlement is home to mostly Sowetans but also migrants from the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana. It has been without electricity for all of its 26 years of existence.

Throughout the winter months of the Covid-19 lockdown, Doornkop's lack of electricity took on a familiar pain. In the mornings, residents could not stay indoors as their cold shacks thawed, resulting in water streaming from the ceilings - "a rain inside", as one resident described it. To keep warm in the evenings, residents, usually women, were forced to walk to the nearby bushes to collect firewood. And the community had to deal with two shack fires that broke out in homes burning candles for light.

But the pandemic also imbued Doornkop's struggle for electricity with new difficulties.

Chief among them, according to Kelebogile Pogiso, 32, and Palesa Gwele, 25, was the new kind of schooling brought about by the pandemic. Their children's homework was sent on WhatsApp groups after the government closed schools during the lockdown. With no electricity in the settlement, the two mothers were forced to charge their phones at a cost of R10 at spaza shops in Doornkop Extension 4. In this way, they said, the lack of electricity combined with the coronavirus to deepen already entrenched educational disadvantages for children living in the settlement.

Life amid protest

Tuesday 25 August, the eighth day that the residents of Doornkop had closed the R558, was the first day of protest that Gwele missed. It was her daughter's eighth birthday. Pogiso was also late as she readied her 10-year-old daughter for school.

With children forced to stay home during lockdown and the elderly particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, the pandemic has had an undue impact on the domestic care economy. As a result, women have come to the fore in Doornkop's struggle for electricity. Gwele and Pogiso were among them.

Another was Tamara Bhengu*, who left the protest that Tuesday for a short while to make sure her two grandsons left on time - amid clouds of tear gas - for school. Pogiso's younger sister Constance, 21, was also central to organising the road closures. Like Bhengu, Constance left the picket line to attend to children in the settlement, rushing between shacks to apply water to the eyes of children left spluttering and confused by the effects of the tear gas.

When asked why these road closures would be different from any of the other attempts made by the community in its decades-long struggle for electricity, Constance said that "this time many can die. It's fine, we are ready to sacrifice."

The electrification of Doornkop has received support from Johannesburg's housing department and, in 2017, from the member of the mayoral committee responsible for environment and infrastructure services, Nico de Jager, who supported the "formalisation and subsequent electrification" of the settlement.

But Doornkop ward councillor Bheki Mgaga, who is "totally against the protest and violence that has erupted" in the area, said there are no plans to formalise or electrify the "illegally grabbed" land, which is owned by the Gauteng provincial government.*Not her real surname.

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