Electricity unprivileged: ubuntu in reverse


Electricity unprivileged: ubuntu in reverse

There is a new class system in South Africa, and it has nothing to do with race or money. It's about whether you have power or not, writes VIV VERMAAK.


I was at a Mugg & Bean not long ago. I left a small ball of my own hair in the empty coffee cup for the waitress to clean up. If I understand myself correctly, I did it out of spite because she had electricity and I didn't.

I knew she had it because she smelt nice. Her makeup was perfectly applied and her eyebrows were impeccably plucked. Not a hair out of place.

I was the opposite. I walked into the shopping centre shamefaced and inferior. I had been without power or a car or easy cash for about two weeks. When I entered Eastgate and saw all the bright lights, my first thought was, "Just turn off a few of the lights; you're wasting electricity."

I thought like someone less electricity privileged. There's a new class system in South Africa, and it has nothing to do with race or money but whether you have electricity or not.

Hair in the cappuccino

I went to the centre to have a warm coffee, recharge my phone, and comb my hair so that I looked a little less like Daisy de Melker when I met someone to discuss business. I used my phone as a mirror.

I could see my face was flushed with anxiety and I had chewed my nails until they were bleeding. The waitress then approached me far too authoritatively, in my opinion, telling me I couldn't comb my hair in public. So, I left her a little present in the empty cup.

I found the pettiness of my behaviour funny at first, but then it became interesting. How can electricity change your sense of dignity?

Very easily. And very quickly. If you go without electricity for a few weeks — and you expect that you'll never have it again — it sets off a psychological domino process. At first, it happens slowly; then it happens rapidly.

Your first reaction is denial. “It's not that bad. I'm an independent person with financial resources and intellectual abilities. I can do laundry in buckets for a few days; after all, millions of South Africans do it every day. It can even be romantic, with the stars in the evenings."

Around the third day, you simply stop doing daily laundry. You suggest Zoom or e-mail conversations instead of in-person meetings. Your expectations of how much work you can accomplish in a day are based on how you manage the battery life of your computer and cellphone.

You prioritise differently. Initially, you complain about the long power outage in your area, but as other people begin to realise how serious your situation is, they avoid you.

I took my portable lithium-ion battery to work and surreptitiously placed it under the desk to minimise the possibility of conversations about my complaints. That was when my car was still working. Without my own transport, I had to put in 100km a day with Uber, take leave, or beg to work from home.

My situation may be more extreme than that of other middle-class people. I was blessed and cursed that my car, my generator, my solar power and the substation in my street all broke or blew up at the same time, and my card got swallowed by the machine, so I had to cancel it. My washing machine and tumble dryer also stopped working at the same time. Suddenly, I was a former privileged person.

It takes a long time to be poor

I had to walk to get to the Pick n Pay or stand in line at the municipality to argue about the power situation. I had to do my washing by hand (and foot) in a bucket and hang it outside.

Your expectations of what you can achieve in one day drop drastically. You cancel any social events because it might rain later and you'll need to bring the laundry in. You plan around your battery life. You only think a few hours ahead. Before you know it, you're living in survival mode.

You realise how long it takes to be poor. You also understand why the burden falls on certain groups of men to work while women stay at home and raise children. There simply isn't enough time when you have to do everything on foot or by hand while the sun is shining.

You quickly find out that privileged people simply can't — or won't — understand the situation of the less privileged. People who “have" are different from those who “have not". And they simply expect you to get your act together. I was always one of those people. Until I wasn't.

The street I live in was suddenly overrun by a criminal electricity cartel. They took over the substation with threats of violence.

People who don't make the R500 “contribution" every week or two are simply disconnected from the pole. The municipality refuses to provide further services to our street, arguing that if residents tamper with the infrastructure themselves, it cannot be held responsible. And its contractors are too afraid to work here or to be shocked by the illegal wiring.

We're fucked. And there's no way out. You adapt. You become different.

I have started to look at people who have had little or no electricity for years in a new light. I listen more. I no longer get angry at minibus taxis. I used to be one of those who believed we had a free-market system and that people make their own opportunities. I don't think that way any more. And I talk much less.

When I share stories of the oppressive regime in my street with colleagues at work, they respond: “Yes, it's just as bad where we are, you know. We had two hours of load shedding yesterday. Oh well." Then they shake their heads and turn their backs on you.

People with whom you had a culture and a class community suddenly become “them". THEY don't understand. They don't want to listen. I can't communicate with them on the same level any more. Electricity affects everything, so you start to feel socially alienated.

You become envious without electricity. In my street, people without power become jealous of those with electricity and tamper with the substation so that nobody has power.

We have ubuntu going in the opposite direction. Other people argue with waiters about strands of hair in cups, which surely isn't any more unhygienic than the sneezes other customers leave in their plates.

I am grateful

This is what happened to me in a few weeks. And I'm an extremely independent and developed individual. Well, that's what I thought.

Now I find myself thinking about what happens to whole communities or a whole nation when the electricity supply has been crumbling for decades. I have experienced what it's like to live like this permanently and how you feel towards your fellow human beings.

And I'm grateful that I was without electricity for a long time. Because it's just electricity. What will we do if it's WATER?

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you!

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.