"... the issue then was electricity, and privatisation was far from electricity, people didn’t understand how it was fitting in into the daily cut offs of electricity you know. It took some time for people to understand because I remember, they would say “down with capitalism” and some of us would be like, 'Okay, that’s if people understand what that is”.
There were always critiques around using such words, you know like globalisation ... those words are up there and there are bread and butter issues which people came for... People are in the SECC because of the evictions, because of the cut off, not because of globalisation because they don’t understand what it does. So it took some time for people to understand how it affects them.”
Throughout the APF’sexistence, the struggle against pre-paid electricity (and water) meters (PPMs) has been a central component of community campaigns. The meters, which began to be introduced in various municipalities on a large scale in the early 2000s not only discriminate against the poor (since PPMs are not forced onto middle and upper income households) but also ensure that poor households have no water and electricity when they cannot pay for what should be a basic public / free good.
When the APF was formed in 2000, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) was one of a handful of community organisations that joined and soon became one of the most well-known (both domestically and internationally) community movements.The SECC produced several outstanding activists and was, for many years, at the forefront of the APF’s struggles and activities. SECC t-shirts arguably became one the most recognised symbols of South Africa’s, community-led anti-privatisation struggles.
"Eskom cut the electricity and then they put those pre-paid and then it's where I begin to run to SECC. And then I start that time, until now. And I didn't move. When you go to Eskom, now when a person goes to Eskom they tell them go to SECC or if you don't know go to Mam'Kwashu. You go to the office, you go and complain, the councillor says, go to Mam'Kwashu. And then we light for you. I said, "Okay, when they say to you, 'who's lights?', you say 'Operation Khanyisa. Don't even hesitate, tell them that."
The SECC's success in mobilising residents of Soweto in opposition to the privatisation of electricity through ‘Operation Khanyisa’ (‘Operation Turn On’) and the resultant publicity was a key component of the APF’s early campaigns/struggles and organisational visibility. In response to massive cut offs of electricity supply to poor households that simply could not affords to pay increasing costs (and often through pre-paid meters), Operation Khanyisa - undertaken by trained activists - directly reconnected residents who had been cut off and by-passed pre-paid meters. In doing so, the campaign effectively stymied the state’s intense efforts to enforce ‘full cost-recovery’ of one of the most basic needs of life.
An advertisement issued by ESKOM – which subsequently became the ‘face’ of a nationwide campaign - was in direct response to the initiation, by the APF and its Soweto community affiliates – of a campaign of reconnecting people’s electricity after they had been cut off by ESKOM and/or the local government authorities (a campaign that also spread across the province and country in the ensuing years). The advert plays on the traditional fear of snakes as evil and implicitly also, the practice of killing snakes when found. After the advert came out ESKOM along with the coercive forces of the state cracked down heavily on anyone associated with reconnections. It is crucial to point out that since the campaign (‘Operation Khanyisa’) began no person from the APF or its affiliates has ever been injured or died as a result of the reconnections.
In an action that eventually received national and global attention, SECC/APF members descended on the house of the Johannesburg Mayor and proceeded to cut off his electricity. The 87 activists subsequently arrested and charged then had to endure over a year of court proceedings (the court eventually finding them not guilty on all charges) – a pamphlet speaks to that battle. In ensuing years, the SECC and APF continued the battle around electricity with particular focus on pre-paid meters – a battle that spread to, and become popularised in, most all poor communities in Gauteng and indeed, across South Africa. The state continues to criminalise those who undertake ‘illegal’ reconnections but the practice has now spread across the Gauteng province and country.
"So...I understood it that...privatisation on its own is a problem to those who dont have (much) because it comes with certain demands on its own and people's lives are undermined and profit comes before everything."