Electricity at a crossroads: the townships have reached the suburbs


Electricity at a crossroads: the townships have reached the suburbs

Her street is a perfect microcosm of the country, writes VIV VERMAAK. But it would have been much more exciting to document it if she didn't live there.


AT first glance it looks like an ordinary middle-class neighbourhood from the 1980s: simple family homes with large backyards full of fruit trees standing next to each other. If you'd been here 10 years ago, you may have seen fewer trees and quite a lot more satellite dishes. The streets are a bit dirtier, and lawns in the front yards are now more commonly paved for parking. The Greek café on the corner has become a spaza shop, and these days the children play soccer in the streets, not cricket. But in daylight, it's a normal residential area, just like you find everywhere in the new South Africa.

At night, it's a different story. It's pitch dark. There are no streetlights, and except for one house where lights sometimes burn, no one else has electricity. However, the person in the house with the lights keeps them off most of the time, because she doesn't want to be too visible. The atmosphere in the street is too heavily charged for people to want to attract any attention.

We've been without power for a few days again. She listens carefully through the window and hears voices shuffling closer to the substation on the corner. The people sound restless and angry. The solar-powered security light in front of her house casts shadows of quite a few people. This time, it's a big community meeting. All the homeowners gather to make an important decision. We've reached a crossroads: will we wait for the city council to restore the electricity, or will we do it ourselves?

I close the gate behind me and walk towards the closed circle.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Fruit trees and satellite dishes

I've lived in Germiston for more than 50 years. My family bought the house in the 1960s. A family with mom, dad and six children. We moved in during the time of the moon landing; my first memory of the house. I stood outside in the cold, looking up at the sky, wondering how it was possible. Nothing has changed.

The backyards in Delville are large, and everyone had fruit trees. We had apple, fig, plum and mulberry trees and two pergolas, one for Catawba grapes and the other for a green bastard fruit. It was part of a post-war idea that people could feed themselves and their neighbours.

The area has always had middle to lower-middle-class residents. When I was a child, the immigrants were Greeks, Italians and Portuguese. As times changed, there was a natural migration from our townships to areas with better opportunities and infrastructure. The “foreigners" now are Congolese, Zimbabweans, Malawians and Bangladeshis. There are rumours that there are also Nigerians and Somalis living in my street, but I've never met them. The houses and large plots have been converted into low-cost housing or “rooms for rent".

When our family moved in, we were still poor, so we didn't have an electric stove. There was an old anthracite stove in the corner, and everyone had to help load and clean it. When the electric stove arrived, there was a solemn farewell ceremony for the coal stove.

Fifty-three years later, I bade Eskom a cursing farewell when I installed solar panels, a gas geyser and a petrol-powered generator. It was more out of necessity than principle. The electricity delivery in Germiston is erratic. In my neighbourhood specifically, it has decreased further over the past two years, with a drastic downward curve over the last six months since the new coalition city council was formed.

My street has an extra complication: overnight, we were overrun by an opportunistic electricity mafia that used a two-week power outage to establish a reign of terror. From then on, everyone had to contribute to get electricity or your power would be cut off at your pole. The man in control of the impromptu gang has been making money for a few years by providing services to the new homeowners, including bypassing meters and getting power directly from the poles. He owns two houses on the street where tenants live.

People like me knew nothing about it, and anyway, as long as it doesn't bother anyone, what's the problem? Everything went well until this last winter that brought the snow. That was the last straw. Suddenly, the overloading problem became very tangible.

I literally and figuratively woke with a shock when the house next to my neighbours caught fire. One of the tenants had made a fire with wood inside the hut because they didn't have hot water or geysers. It was the first time I, like other people, emerged from behind my walls and closed doors and started hanging out on the sidewalk. I was a stranger in my “own" neighbourhood. “How did this happen?" I wondered. “I was here first," was my argument. It's always a weak argument.

I started joining the street's WhatsApp groups and looking over walls. Five or six rooms in the backyard where apple trees used to be. The house right across from mine has 20 housing units, some of them with families of three or four inside. I climbed on the roof with a rattle; even without a drone, the extent of the problem was obvious.

At street level, I started looking up when walking to Pick n Pay. If you know what to look for, you can see who has a “hot" connection that will trip the substation or the house's electricity supply. There are marks on the box by the pole, and you can see how extra sets of wires run directly from a pole to the back of a house.

A former Eskom engineer who worked on urban planning projects explained it to me like this: “You're living in a block full of apartments, except they're just on the ground. There's no way the old infrastructure can support this urbanisation of your area."

She said Eskom had been warning the government for decades that the urbanisation process was natural and important, and better provision would have to be made. As the government was eventually forced to provide electricity to informal settlements, it will also increasingly happen with suburbs.

We are the future because the past is here

That day has now arrived, and I am experiencing it. The townships, in terms of population density and attitudes towards service delivery, are on my doorstep.

My street is the canary in the coalmine. It's happening more and more in other areas too. Germiston, which has always been the home of artisans and the working class due to its large industrial areas since the gold-mining era, still is, but the factories are closing, the government is corrupt and the city council is incompetent. That's how the dominoes fall.

My street is a perfect microcosm of the country. We are the future because the past is here.

It has caught up with us.

It would have been much more exciting to document it if I weren't living here myself.

♦ VWB ♦

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