May 15, 2007

Political Control and Electricity Generation

Filed under: Theorising Practice_May 2007 — newritings @ 4:46 pm

For far too long the issue of energy has been put to one side, treated as if it had no influence on how South African society is shaped. And there has been a stereotype, somewhat valid, that within civil society energy has been the domain of white environmentalists – aging hippies in sandals going shoo-wah over the teachings of the Dalai Lama (R299 at Rosebank Mall) and speaking about how we all must conserve electricity, how we all must make sacrifices, whilst black children die in shack fires caused from having to use a paraffin stove because the household electricity lifeline was used up weeks ago.

Access to power and in particular electricity is a determining factor in one’s position within society, and the withholding of access to it, either through refusing to provide access or through tariffs, is an act of controlling individual access to other rights and opportunities in society. In the “power relationship” between the citizenry and Eskom/Government, those who control the generation and distribution of electricity hold all the cards. There is very little citizens can do if the price of electricity is increased (for the poor with access, a rise in price means that their access becomes further restricted) or if supply is diverted to industry.

Energy-generation and distribution is a murky topic. Omission, falsehood and deception surround the use of light switches, refrigerators, irrigation pumps and industrial smelters. Without fail, the one lie that all of the above seem to propagate is that there is an energy shortage. It goes something like this:

Since we can only generate x amount of power and the practical demand of each and every user is greater than x, x will have to be allocated. Of course, someone will have to make this allocation, and this someone is the state. The state, as a supposed neutral actor and invested with, to quote Max Weber, “a successful claim on monopoly of the legitimate use of force”, will decide that industry will get so much power, agriculture so much, and residential users so much. The best allocation of resources will be on the basis of what is deemed in the best interest of the common good. It may be unfortunate that not all of us get the power we want, but that’s life and sacrifices have to be made.

To start with, there is no energy shortage in the universe. The universe is awash with energy (all there is, after all, is energy and matter), and energy can neither be destroyed nor created. For the purposes of the human race, there is a virtually unlimited amount of energy for the species to tap into. And, therein lies the problem. It is not all that easy to convert energy into power, and part of the struggle of human history has been the various attempts to tap into the energy of the universe. The most important lesson that should be learnt from history of current energy conversion practises, was the political situation regarding water and windmills.

[1] In the Servitude of Power, the authors argue that these two different energy sources were used in two different manners despite having the same primary technological function, grinding grain into flour:

a) Watermills required access to flowing water and were relatively expensive to build. As the feudal structure of the day controlled access to watercourses and held a great deal of society’s resources (capital etc), the aristocracy was able to own and control the watermills, thus, locking down an important part of agricultural production for its sole benefit. The peasantry had no access to the watermills, and had to compete in the processing of flour with older, less efficient methods of production. Quite clearly, we can see the link between ownership of energy conversion and socio-economic relationships. As Debeir et al state, “[Water]Mills were not only a good deal for some, but also tended to bolster an oppressive social structure. [2]

b) Windmills were another story. Not only was wind part of the commons (that is available for fair use by all people and thus a renewable resource accessible to all social classes), it was cheaper to build windmills than watermills. The increasing use of windmills enabled the burghers, and peasants and cities to compete favourably in the production of flour (for which the market was growing as bread became more and more part of the staple diet of people). Windmills also encouraged competition with the aristocracy in the agricultural production economy, impacting significantly in political relations, especially in the contest between free cities and feudal landowners, one of the central conflicts of the Middle Ages.

Speaking of today, we have the modern equivalents of watermills, but not a windmill in sight. The energy cycle of modern life is dependent on petroleum, natural gas and coal. The global economy is a fossil fuel economy chasing after diminishing reserves with no alternative in mind. Further, the control of this energy cycle is centralised in the hands of the few, with the majority of the world population reduced to being mere consumers at best. To illustrate this point with reference to the generation and distribution of electricity in South Africa.


Ninety-five percent of electricity is generated (and distributed) through one organisation, the parastatal- Eskom. The South African government owns 100% of Eskom, with the Minister of Public Enterprises being the representative shareholder. In effect, this means that the South African government has total control over the conversion of energy into electricity and its subsequent distribution. Eskom generates this electricity overwhelmingly through the use of ten coal-fired power stations, producing 90% of all electricity. The additional 5% comes from nuclear (Koeberg) and hydro resources. This is a centralisation of energy conversion almost unheard of in human history. If we accept that the government is just one actor within our society, then it must seem strange that it holds all the control over one of society’s basic goods.

The South African government, therefore, makes the decision on how to distribute Eskom’s 208,314GWh of electricity. It does this as follows (2000 figures): agriculture gets 3% of Eskom’s electricity, commerce gets 10%, the transport sector gets 2%, and industry is allocated a whopping 68%. Residential users …17%.

Put another way, the individual users are dependent entirely upon Government to provide them with a basic infrastructure for modern living, thus giving government undue power over the circumstances of the fortunes of citizens, communities, organisations, and businesses. This results in an insidious form of patronage.

In addition, the total centralisation of energy conversion has enabled the Government to use electricity as part of its pro-capitalist and anti-poor macro-economic policy; witness the pre-paid meter wars in Soweto, the staggering numbers of disconnections (10 million by 2002) [3], preferential pricing for domestic and foreign corporations, an attempt at privatising Eskom [4], and a continued reliance on coal. Using only coal to generate electricity provides an effective market-subsidy to the coal mining and export companies (such as Anglo Coal and TOTAL).

Back to the future

The future of energy generation holds both fear and joy. In the coming decades the world will either make the transition away from a fossil fuel economy or it will suffer the negative consequences of climate change. Given that this “change” is already here there is a great danger that the transition towards an alternative energy system will ignore the social and economic relationships that exist in energy conversion, especially within the arena of minerals-energy sectors.

Leaving aside the negative affects of global warming and air pollution for this discussion, it makes no difference in terms of societal power relationships if the system for producing electricity comes from a centralised coal-based, or renewable energy (or nuclear) system. Both systems will reproduce the same kind of socio-economic relationships that exists today. Replacing one system that bolsters domination with another that also bolsters domination does not advance the cause of human justice one bit. It also has implications for some environmental organisations that must address this reality and shed the bunny-hugging and the blinkered view that environmental causes are not social justice issues.The only long-term solution that will address both the environmental and human justice concerns is one that addresses the political economy of power. Moreover, addressing the political economy of power is a necessary step towards a better, brighter world for all of us.

Fortunately alternative technologies ( such as solar, wind, biogas) -and methodologies exists for using energy with greater efficiency, that have the potential to change the political economy of power. Technologically, we are close to the point of having a carbon-based paint that can be applied to a wall and generate electricity using solar radiation.

What needs to be done is to decentralise the generation of electricity to the level of municipalities, towns, villages, and, most importantly, individual households. The users of electricty can also be producers of electrical energy. If this happens it will also assist in changing the owneship structure in the electricity sector – giving people a direct say and ownership. The goal is that each household should be able to generate enough electricity for its own use, as well as generate excess electricity that can be fed back into the national grid. This goal is not impossible to achieve. The technology would have to be renewable and use materials available at a local level. Wind and solar provide two potential sources for such a system, and, because they are free to all, cannot be controlled by the few.

By giving space for “power to the people” we can deal with the corrosive and dominating relationship with regard to electricity would be dissolved and replaced with a situation of community and individual level self-sufficiency, providing a basis for advances in other areas such as economics, liberty, human rights, and real education. For the past 250 years we have had the feudal lords and their watermills. Now its the time for some windmills and freedom.

Tristen Taylor is the Energy Policy Officer at Earthlife Africa Jhb. The views expressed in this work are not necessarily those of Earthlife Africa Jhb, however, they are part of a wider debate within the environmental sector about the environment, social justice, and free market vs. socialist solutions.

* Note: This is a shortened version of a longer piece called the “The Political Economy of Power”, which can be found at:

[1] Debeir, Deléage, and Hémery point out

[2] Jean-Claude Debeir, et. al. In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilisation Through the Ages (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1986), pg. 77

[3] David A. McDonald, “The Bell Tolls For Thee: Cost Recovery, Cutoffs, and the Affordability of Municipal Services in South Africa”, Municipal Services Project, March 2002, pg. 3

[4] Currently on hold, but which would result in a centralising of energy conversion in the hands of business, a far smaller and less accountable group than Government.

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