“And I will not stop until I am six feet underground.” These words may well have come straight out of The Godfather or one of history’s revolutionary leaders. Yet standing under the sweltering Johannesburg sun, an electrician describes his mission to illegally connect a series of the city’s townships.
Soweto, a sprawling cluster of townships southwest of Johannesburg, was a product of segregationist planning. Formerly known as Klipspruit, the area was zoned to house black laborers far away from the city center.History has a way of leaving its mark. And in South Africa, its traces run through life in Soweto. Since its violent uprising against compulsory Afrikaans-language schooling in 1976, the place has become synonymous with struggle—for power, for resources, for a particular version of history.
The current resistance seeks to open the flow of electricity. The players are Eskom, the country’s government-owned, monopolistic electricity utility, and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), a group of self-made electricians whose mission is to connect the township through the illegal redirection of power.
The wires are impossible to miss: hacked and repurposed lines connect the area. “We don’t ask why people are cut off,” explains an SECC activist who wished to remain anonymous. “We just switch them back on. This belongs to the people.” They are a small group of volunteers, but their impact is profound: more than half of Soweto’s residents now get their electricity for free. The SECC reconnects about 40 of these houses weekly.
The SECC believes it is stepping in where the government has failed. To many of Soweto’s residents, the SECC is doing what the government promised when it won its first democratic election in 1994—providing utilities free of charge.The electricians proudly move from job to job, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with their logo, even reconnecting members of the police force. Meanwhile, Eskom runs expensive advertising campaigns denouncing the activists. But the activists perfect their trade, working with purpose and passion. They share skills among volunteers and decry the dangers of jobs botched by others.
And the SECC will only get busier. Underinvestment in power stations means that South Africa is short of generating capacity, which in turn drives Eskom to hike prices. Eskom calls SECC activists izinyoka, or “snakes”, and a minority in Soweto choose to shun the SECC and stay legal. Yet with Eskom increasing legal customers’ tariffs by 45 percent, their allegiance may shift.
For all their cost saving, the SECC’s power supply has brought something more lasting: the questioning of power. “This isn’t just about electricity. This is the continuation of the liberation struggle.”