A neighbourhood committee that sees to it that all its members are connected to the electricity grid is planning to disconnect the local mayor's electricity. A social movement activist argues that there are no 'members' only 'supporters' as poor people cannot afford to pay membership fees to be part of the organisation. A group of protestors seem confused about what they are protesting against: Zimbabweans or the police. Welcome to Gauteng. In this three part series, Shauna Mottiar's focuses on Social Movements in Gauteng, South Africa.
Welcome to Gauteng: Part 1
It is estimated that there are ten million trees in Johannesburg and in satellite photographs the city looks like a rain forest. I considered this as I drove down 6th Street towards my parent's home.
6th Street is lined on either side with old Plane trees.
The next order of business comrades is that we have hired a bus which can accommodate about a hundred of us for our visit to the Mayor's house
In summer they form an almost complete canopy allowing only speckles of sunlight through. In winter they stand bare but as night falls the bark of their trunks turn silver in the moonlight.
My favourite though, is autumn when their leaves fall and carpet the street in a layer of golden brown.
The tree lined streets of Johannesburg's northern suburbs are a complete contrast to where I had spent the afternoon, Soweto - the apartheid zoned South Western township of Johannesburg.
Soweto has no tree lined streets indeed a post-apartheid 'Greening' initiative declared that planting trees there was problematic given that sewer systems are installed so close to the surface and that pavements are too narrow.
My short visit to Soweto had revealed however that treeless streets were the least of people's concerns.
I had attended the meeting of a social movement advocating for affordable electricity.
I was surprised to see a number of old ladies and later learned that the "grannies of Soweto" were hardest hit by electricity cut offs instituted by the national electricity regulator.
These women were often heads of their households supporting large families on modest pension incomes.
89 percent of Soweto households had found themselves in arrears and 20,000 households had been cut off.
"Why are they cutting us off?" Boomed the voice of the organisation's leader Travis Nkulu. "Because they are more interested in profits and 'cost recovery' than in allowing us our rights to services."
"Viva!" Shouted a group of people from the back of the room. "We are citizens not consumers!"
"How can someone whose income is R800 pay a R1,000 electricity bill every month?" Continued Travis. "Electricity must be provided to South Africans on a lifeline basis. There must be cross subsidization from wasteful luxury users and big business that use most of South Africa's electricity."
"Amandla (power)!" Sang the group at the back and the answering call, "Ngawethu (is ours)!"
At this point the room was practically vibrating and there was a moment where even I glimpsed it: A South Africa where everyone has eaten today.
"Now comrades," said Travis, "I have a report back about 'Operation Switch On'.
In the last 6 months we have re-connected over 3,000 households disconnected for 'nonpayment'!" A mighty cheer went up and Travis was forced to pause before continuing.
"As you know we re-connect any household that needs us. We do not discriminate between rich and poor or between members and non-members. Comrades we even re-connected a police station the other day!" Another cheer went up.
I looked nervously at the young woman next to me and whispered "But isn't that illegal? It's like stealing electricity?" The young woman grinned and, motioning to me shouted.
"There's a comrade here Travis who is worried that we're stealing electricity." I took the split second of silence to cringe with embarrassment before Travis answered.
"No, we are not stealing electricity comrade. We are liberating it!"
He looked me directly in the eye and smiled, possibly the most charming smile that has ever been leveled at me (by a revolutionary anyway). I'd also never been called 'comrade' before. I liked it.
"The next order of business comrades is that we have hired a bus which can accommodate about a hundred of us for our visit to the Mayor's house." Another cheer went up.
Travis then thanked everyone and closed the meeting.
"What's happening at the Mayor's house?" I asked my young woman thinking that it was a safe enough bet now that the floor had been closed.
"We are going there to disconnect his electricity." She said.
The next morning I visited the office of another social movement advocating against the privatisation of services and of water in particular. Their view was that privatisation would make it more difficult for the poor to access basic water.
As I walked in the main entrance I encountered what would be described as a real 'hottie'. He was in his mid-thirties, dark haired with beautiful eyes. He was also wearing rather a lot of black leather.
"Can I help you?" He asked politely.
"Er, yes," I said trying not to stare and hoping my hair looked alright, "I have a meeting with Dave McKinsey."
"That's me," he replied, "you must be the researcher working on the social movements study?"
"Er, yes." He lead me to a section in the back explaining that there was a meeting going on and it could get noisy.
I looked curiously at the meeting participants – they could hardly be described as a homogeneous group. I decided to inquire about this right off. "Who are most of your members?"
"Well we don't really have 'members' because many people linked with us can't afford to pay membership fees – we prefer the term 'support base' which is about 10,000."
"And who is part of this support base?"
"Our participants and affiliates represent the marginal and vulnerable parts of society. Many of them are unemployed and don't have adequate access to water. They come from townships and informal settlements." I stared at him doubtfully, wondering how to ask the next question.
"Er, you don't look like you reside in a township or an informal settlement?" He chuckled.
"Many of our key activists are middle class sorts with academic or political backgrounds who are committed to the provision of basic needs to all South Africans."
My final question to Dave on the subject of participation was why he thought the organization had not really made inroads with respect to full time employed workers.
His answer was a quote from one of the organisation's foremost activists, "The leadership of the national union has captured the bodies of the workers but their souls are wondering around. One day they will connect with their bodies"...