Bad Boy for a Day: Riding out with the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee


Ron Singer

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.


The highways of Johannesburg (a.k.a. Jo'burg, a.k.a. Joeys) display banners sponsored by the parastatal utility, ESKOM: “Illegal Connections Kill,” “Pay your Bills on Time. Don't Get Shut Off!” and “Stealing Power Is A Crime.” Since the advent of majority rule in 1994, the adequacy of service provision by the African National Congress (ANC) government has been found wanting. As the years have passed and promises have gone unmet, hope has given way to impatience. By the late 90's, there was already a steady stream of vigorous, often coordinated protests. Today, millions of South Africans remain without basic services.

One of the protest movement's best-known organizations is the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, or SECC. In June, 2001, the SECC made global headlines by shutting off the water supply to the Mayor of Johannesburg's house. (They were unable to disconnect his electricity.) “Soweto,” or “SOuth WEstern TOwnships was, of course, the site of the student riots of 1976 that precipitated the end of minority rule. What, exactly, is a township? South Africa's numerous townships began as enclaves into which non-whites who were needed to work in the cities could be herded. Today, the large majority of non-whites still live in townships.

The co-founder and leader of the SECC is the clever, charismatic Trevor Ngwane (b. 1960). When I emailed Comrade Trevor, currently a graduate student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZ-N) in Durban, asking if I might observe the operations of the  SECC, he put me in touch with a lieutenant back in Soweto. She, in turn, connected me with the man who runs their youth training program, whom I will call Comrade Kotsi. “Kotsi” means “danger” in Sesotho, a South African language. “Comrade” means what? So far as I can tell, in South Africa the word has evolved into a self-designated soubriquet for people who, like Trevor and Kotsi, are seriously committed to a Socialist future. And “Communist”? As activist Ashwin Desai puts it:

Before long [after 1994], democracy was more or less stifled within the ANC and its Communist and trade union allies. It soon got to the point where you could get expelled from the South African Communist Party for advocating Communism.

*          *          *

At high noon on Saturday, March 6, 2010, using our cell phones until we were ten feet apart, Comrade Kotsi and I rendez-voused near a landmark called the Carleton Centre in downtown Jo'burg. This neighborhood is an ill-planned mix of skyscraper office buildings and shabby storefront businesses. For most of the day, the only people on the streets are hordes of the economically marginal. Downtown Jo'burg has lost much of its economic and cultural vitality to a mushrooming group of suburbs, in this case to the north, places such as Rosebank and Sandton. Comrade Kotsi came to meet me from Soweto in a mini-bus, which is called a taxi in South Africa. We folded ourselves into my rental car and headed back south, following a tortuous route in order to avoid highway traffic.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Soweto, whose population is about the same as Brooklyn's, is by no means a homogeneous place. Within the sprawling township are upscale neighborhoods populated by celebrities and tycoons loyal to their roots, and shack settlements (which the government calls “squatters' camps”) that lack any amenity you can mention. In Soweto, you see people walking mile after mile because they cannot afford U.S. 13.5 cents for a taxi and others driving high-end luxury vehicles that cost much more than a pedestrian could  earn in a lifetime.


We also drove past massive cookie-cutter blocs of what are called RDP houses. 
An example of ongoing but outdated behavior is in the field of housing. The matchbox scheme houses built by the old apartheid government were called NE 51/9's - NE stood for Non European and the 51 was because they were designed in 1951. Although they're now called RDP [Reconstruction and Development Programme] houses, South Africa is essentially still building NE 51/9's across the country.


The land for RDP housing is often obtained by razing shack settlements, which are at the low end of Soweto's housing stock. Somewhere between mansions and shack settlements are the RDP blocs and the many neighborhoods comprising everything from single shacks to modest homes.


Before we got down to serious business, we decided to stop for lunch at a bastion of capitalism, the Maponya Mall, the largest in Soweto. On the way to Maponya, we drove past a building that epitomizes the scramble for survival in today's South Africa.

RS: What's that building?
CK: This is the Universal Church. But it's been shut down by the government because the church owners were, like, drug dealers. So they confiscated drugs, marijuana, and … er… private parts of toddlers. 
RS: What's that? What did … ?
CK: Private parts, like testicles. 
RS: What! What were they doing with that? Were people giving them in hopes of getting money?
CK: Yes. They believe in things like traditional herbs which will make you rich. 

At the entrance to the parking lot of the Mall, we went through a guard post with a bar.

RS: They're not going to shut this thing on me? What is this for?
CK: When you pass out, they can check to know whether the car is stolen or not.
RS: How do they check?
CK: If the key is in the car. The thieves don't use keys. The hairpin. Or the money clip.
RS: This is like a complete city.

Passing many shoppers, some pushing big loaded carts, we climbed a steep escalator into the heart of the mall.

CK: It's only those who can afford to push big wagons and carry more. The people who come here, come for not much food buying, but clothes.

We entered a mid-scale chain restaurant through a gauntlet of servers dressed in the uniform of the South African football (soccer) team. The World Cup would begin in about three months (June 11th), and South Africa –especially black South Africa—was already in the throes of football fever.


As we ordered and ate, then waited for the check, our conversation ranged widely, but the central theme was money.

CK: If you don't have money, then you don't have access to good life. Those who can afford, can go to see their private doctors Looking at things as they are, in some countries, people go and exercise in the private swimming pools. Even though we don't have them, we have the government central swimming pools, where you must pay, like, twenty bucks [i.e. rands –U.S.$2.70] for half a day.

After we left the mall and were back on the main road, Kotsi sounded even more like a committed outsider, a Comrade. He was realistic and frank about both the accomplishments and problems of the SECC:

CK: Since Zuma took over last year, there are so many riots happening in South Africa. We'll soon pass Kliptown, the place where a riot took place [in November 2007].
RS: Is the SECC involved in Kliptown? 
CK: Yes.
RS: Whose idea was the riot?
CK: The community.
RS: Do you have meetings with the community where that's decided?
CK: The only thing we gave to them was the education, the ideology, of fighting the system of capitalism. Things are planned, but they do things unplanned. You can't control the anger of the masses, which hurts the SECC. I think they need anger management counselors! … I'm handling the youth organization, as a leader. I'm visiting schools, visiting townships, talking to those who are unemployed. But the thing is, only few can listen. The language [you need to speak] is entertainment for the youth. You need to hire musicians, a soccer field, a lot of entertainment.
RS: If they're enjoying themselves, then they'll listen.
CK: Yah. But, at the end of the day, after the entertainment, they'll go back to the same street corners and wait for another entertainment again. It's only few that can understand or who can feel the pressure of the system.

After a few minutes and a few turns, still on the main road, we came to a shack settlement.

CK: This is “Chicken Farm,” the squatters' camp. We call it “Chicken Farm.” 
RS: Do you work in this camp?
CK: No, they don't want to be involved. The Comrades work in the RDP houses on the other side.

We drove on to Kliptown, a second, larger shack settlement.

CK: In Kliptown, we've managed to reconnect electricity. ESKOM is saying we steal this electricity. We don't see it as stealing, because when you steal, you sell it somewhere. You see all of the wires that are flowing on top of the houses?


Turning onto smaller roads, we drove around the perimeter of Kliptown toward Kotsi's own neighborhood, Dhlamini, and its contiguous neighborhoods. I reluctantly posed a challenging question.

RS: Someone told me there are people who are not poor, but who pay these guys a certain amount of money for an illegal connection, and then they don't pay ESKOM. Is that true?  
CK: Let me put it like this. Whenever we [the SECC] reconnect, we reconnect for free. Some people who hear about us come and be taught how to reconnect electricity … water… . Then, they'll quit the organization, work on their own, do private jobs, charging people a lot of money. These people are making money at other peoples' expense.

We entered Dhlamini, where Kotsi greeted many people by name. We crawled along a narrow, unpaved road crowded with children playing and men working on cars or just hanging out. Kotsi kept speaking to people, introducing me to a few, and explaining that I was in a hurry, in order to account for our rudeness in not stopping longer.

CK: Let me tell this guy … wait a minute. 
RS: Does he work for you?
CK: Yah, just new in the organization, just recruited. 
RS: Is it hard to teach somebody to do that [reconnection]?
CK: No, you do your best, just train … The thing that's happening here, we are not paying here, the electricity. I want to show you the difference between the paying and non-paying areas. 
RS: But some people here have nice houses. 
CK: They got them while they were working.

We drove past an empty piece of ground.

CK: This was the squatter camp of Dhlamini.
RS: Where is it?
CK: Now they've removed them to the RDP houses. Only few families who were left, then they sold their houses to immigrants because they [immigrants] don't qualify for the RDP houses.

A few more turns, and we entered another neighborhood, Shawela, which looked very similar to Dhlamini.

CK: From this house, the whole section here in Shawela are paying electricity. The crisis that has happened here is, this side they are using the green box, they have installed the pre-paid meter system without acknowledging, without telling the people what will be happening. They said they are renovating the boxes, you know, developing their system.  
RS: “Renovating.” That's a nice word.
CK: Most unfortunately, they renovate their pocket. ESKOM can't come to our side, in Dhlamini, because we blow whistles, then we take whatever  equipment has been carried by ESKOM in their cars. I want to show you the box that causes the whole problem. Just park here, this is the box. It's, like, heavy, steel. This was the old box, the big one, the white one.


Returning to Dhlamini, we reached the climax of the tour.

CK: Stop here. This is what makes us not to pay the electricity, which is different from the green one. This is the distribution box. We'll go there and open it, I'll show you how.                                          


With my help, Kotsi pried open the box. It took us only a minute or two. Coincidentally, as we worked, from an unseen radio or some other nearby source came music that sounded dangerous, a repetitive, twanging guitar. Kotsi showed me the illegal connections inside the box. We closed it and drove on.

A Few Conclusions.

1. What is Soweto today?
My experience of multi-class Soweto encapsulated the current conflict in South Africa between the economic development of the nation and, in particular, of the Black middle class, and the desperate project of trying to satisfy the needs of the poor. I also experienced, first-hand, the meeting of cultures. Across South Africa, malls appear to be the principal social hubs, or public spaces, their relative drabness or flash reflecting the communities in which they do business. What strikes one most about these public spaces, from Maponya to the very upscale Sandton malls, is the sight of the Black masses of South Africa eagerly ingesting the goods and culture of global capitalism.

2. What makes a Bad Boy tick?
Do some people join groups like the SECC because they are bad boys, or outlaws? I asked Professor Richard Ballard, who studies these groups:

Too little work has been done on the psychology of activism. A lot of activists have an anti-Establishment streak. Middle-class leftists, too, are concerned about social justice issues. But there are also god-fearing, law-abiding citizens, often deeply committed to a more egalitarian society. And, sometimes, you'll find both things in the same person.

It is difficult to characterize the core membership of the SECC, but it does include a large complement of older church-going women. The SECC trainees who do a one-eighty into the private-connection business would appear to be capitalist outlaws, imbued with an aggressive entrepreneurial spirit. Does that make them  “anti-” or “pro-“ Establishment?

3. In addition to postponed promises for improved service delivery, what especially fuels public anger?

The government says, “But we can't afford to pay.”

Recent headlines in the Guardian & Mail newspaper: 
“Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda's Five-Star Hotel Binge”
 -- “The Zuma Family's Business Empire”

As Orlean Naidoo, a respected organizer/activist in Chatsworth, the huge Indian township in Durban, famously put it, “We are not interested in the previous oppressor; we are interested in the present oppressor.”

4. According to those who closely monitor the protest movements, what kind of future can South Africa anticipate?
Richard Ballard: 
They claim to be reducing the [housing] back-log to zero by 2014, no shacks. They're delusional. For every household that realizes the dream –a truck pulls up in front of their shack and carries them to their new house—there's a new migrant family or a household that's split. And the government can't keep up. The effort is to make the population passive in its receipt of development. People in shack settlements are very conscious that their shacks may be knocked down. They don't want to pay for water, etc. in a place they may lose. 

Patrick Bond:
From a first stage of critique to a second stage, based on a formidable grassroots movement for urban reform, perhaps revolution, that shakes the apartheid-capitalist city at its roots, we may not have long to wait around the corner of the 21st century, if the contradictions associated with South Africa's new urban crisis continue intensifying.

Photos by Comrade Kotsi, using the author's camera

Principal Sources.

Bond, Patrick. Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal (African World Press/Red Sea Press, 1999).                
Daily emails (Feb 2010 to the present). 
Patrick Bond is Director, Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal. 
Chatsworth, Struggle for Shelter: Honouring the work of Professor Fatima Meer and contributing to her 80th birthday .

CIA –the World Factbook-South Africa. 
Desai, Ashwin. We Are the Poors (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).
GM South Africa Foundation
Mail & Guardian, March 12-18 & March 19-25, 2010. 
Singer, Ron. Interviews with Richard Ballard, Coordinator, School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, March 10, 2010; and Orlean Naidoo, Leader, Westcliff Flat Residents Association, Chatsworth, Durban, March 8-12, 2010.