This paper is an extraction from a PhD thesis at the University of KZN, Durban, SA. It discusses access to electricity by the Umlazi community and analyzes how such access, or lack thereof, would assist an understanding of the strengths as well as the dynamics of social movement intervention in improving service delivery mechanisms of the local government, thereby reducing significantly the need for the maintenance of quiescence and therefore a full participatory democracy; a democracy where all citizens as members of the polity may enjoy their rights as enshrined in the highest law of the land. This paper therefore uses electricity as an example around which all other issues relating to service delivery may be addressed, not against the government, but with, and in line with the programs and policies of the government itself.
Patrick Bond (2005, p. 5) observes that there are three practices associated with South Africa’s transition to energy neo-liberalism: (1) climate change caused by what has been termed the ‘Minerals-Energy Complex’; (2) the crisis of electricity access [for poor households] in view of disconnections associated with energy sector liberalization and; (3) the government’s failure to promote renewable energy sources and instead waste scarce funds on a nuclear energy fantasy. Since we are here concerned with household access to electricity, the second point above is in application. Under consideration is the point that while the government has failed to meet its targets for mass electrification, disconnections have largely increased the number of households without electricity, forcing many to rely on alternative sources of energy which have various negative health and environmental effects. Even with the introduction of prepaid electricity, many a household still use these alternative sources of energy because they are cheaper. Choosing the latter option is informed, for many poor households, by poverty economics. The latter, in turn, is caused by prevalent unemployment, souring poverty and low incomes for the employed and the beneficiaries of social welfare grants.
Furthermore, eThekwini faces what Hicks (2006: 1) calls a “Democracy Deficit”. This is defined as a failure to link citizens with the institutions and processes of the state, affecting the quality and vibrancy of democracy and resulting in reduced accountability.
In this paper we have identified electricity provision in Umlazi and used it as an example of an issue around which people and movements would organize and challenge government; an issue around which suggestions for improved service delivery can be forwarded. This is in line with the objectives of this study: to analyze quiescence and offer alternative strategies for the government to improve its service delivery mechanisms, with full political participation by the communities for which such delivery is intended. In turn, it is believed that with improved service delivery, the tangible impact of quiescence would lessen, thus leading to enhanced participation in political and community issues of ordinary citizens in Umlazi.
In other words, we want to demonstrate that the obvious nature of problems in the community, such as electricity provision, would not raise participation levels, further attesting that the matter is not about issues at hand, because people clearly are aware of these, but more complex underlying factors are responsible for non-participation, and that one such factor explaining this behavior to a very large degree, is quiescence. Electricity and water are critical amenities of life that any community would be seriously affected if the supply of these was cut-off, for whatever reason. However, people remain in the dark as to what they can do to effect change in this regard as the cut-offs have continued indefinitely since the late 1990s, in Umlazi and elsewhere in South Africa.
For example, research that was done in Soweto found that when electricity is cut off, consumers record numerous difficulties: the food gets spoiled (98%); we cannot cook the food properly (90%); our personal hygiene is negatively affected (88%); we spend more money on alternative fuels (84%); the kids cannot study properly (81%); it increases crime in the area (73%); it is degrading to my family to live without electricity (70%); the women have more work (65%); it is bad for our working life (62%); it disrupts home business (41%); it increases domestic violence in the neighborhood (36%). This is true for many other poor communities who are denied access, not only to electricity, but to a host of other services.
Access to basic social services is guaranteed by the constitution in South Africa . These provisions include such services as water and, by implication, electricity as well. The linking of electricity to the rights discourse was a kind of logic in that other basic social services to which the constitution defended rights to, would be impracticable without electricity coming in also as a right. These include the right to a healthy environment , adequate and decent housing, and dignity.