Chiawelo, Soweto, electricity struggles, South Africa


The Chiawelo comminity is fighting against the installation of pre-payment electricity meters which forces them to pay upfront for electricity. The underlying problem is the increasingly high cost of electricity for non-business electricity users in South Africa. ESKOM,the state-owned electricity company routinely cuts off the power supply to consumers who fall behind several months with their payments. But social movements organising in Soweto, a mainly working class township/suburb, such as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, often re-connect residents who get cut off as part of their struggle for universal access to clean energy. The conflict in Chiawelo arose because the new pre-payment meters are tamper- proof, that is, they are built like money safes and cannot be interfered with by residents and social movement technicians seeking to re-connect the people. In 2010 the community of Chiawelo got very agitated about these meters given a 20% increase in the price of electricity that saw many unable to pay and thus without electricity. They marched in the streets causing chaos and burnt down two houses belonging to local councillors, that is, elected local government representatives. The aftermath saw 26 residents arrested and facing charges of arson, public violence and malicious damage to property. The arrested spent 4 months in jail because the state refused them bail. The court case is on-going.

See more...
Basic Data
NameChiawelo, Soweto, electricity struggles, South Africa
CountrySouth Africa
SiteChiawelo, Soweto, Johannesburg
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Urban development conflicts
Specific CommoditiesElectricity
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsThe average family uses 400 kwh of electricity per month. Soweto is estimated to have 1,5 million residents or about 250 000 households
Project Area (in hectares)5
Type of PopulationUrban
Potential Affected Population1,5 million Sowetans
Company Names or State EnterprisesESKOM from South Africa
Relevant government actorsDepartment of State Enteprises, Department of Minerals and Energy
International and Financial InstitutionsThe World Bank (WB) from United States of America
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersSoweto Electricity Crisis Committee, Soweto Concerned Residents, Earthlife South Africa, Democratic Left Front, Socialist Party of Azania, Pan Africanist Congress
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingNeighbours/citizens/communities
Social movements
Forms of MobilizationMedia based activism/alternative media
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Property damage/arson
Opening of the the pre-payment electricity meters using grinders in order to re-connect those who were cut off.
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution
Potential: Fires, Global warming
OtherThe walls of some peoples houses get covered with soot due to the use of paraffin primus stoves, candles spills dirty the house, paraffin smell inside the house and on peoples clothing. This happens due to the use of unclean and unsafe fuels since many people cannot afford to buy electricity.
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Potential: Malnutrition, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..) , Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
OtherSchool children studying using paraffin lamps, candles and other inadequate light sources have their eyes negatively affected.
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures
OtherToo much money spent on buying electricity constrains the budgets of poor families. Many families rely on government social grants, such as penisions and child grants, for survival given the high unemployment rate in Soweto.
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCriminalization of activists
The government promotes a policy of providing free electricity to poor households, but this amounts to 50 kwh per household per month. This is not enough to cover basic energy needs of working class families.
Development of AlternativesThey demand enough free electricity for all to cover basic needs i.e. about 400 kwh per household per month. The electricity company must stop installing the pre-payment meters. The government must subsidise the installation of solar energy panels in order to make electricity affordable and to prevent carbon emissions that lead to climate change. All charges to be dropped against the 26 Chiawelo residents who were arrested and who face stiff sentences if found guilty by the court.
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.The residents of Soweto have a right to clean energy. Without access to this they end up using unclean fuels such as burning wood, coal and using paraffin. Their struggle highlighted this right and slowed down the implementation of the pre-payment meters throughout Soweto as a result of other communities taking up the resistance and the authorities moving more cautiously.
Sources and Materials

The government is considering criminalising the stealing of electricity because at the moment there is no piece of law that allows government to arrest and charge residents who re-connect themselves to the power supply when cut off for credit purposes.


Trevor Ngwane, We, the protesters, Amandla, No. 14 (May/June 2010)

South African Broadcasting Corporation, News Research database, 2011.

Karl von Holdt et al. The Smoke that Calls: Insurgent Citizenship, Collective Violence and the Struggle for a Place in the New South Africa, Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and Society of Work and Development Institute, 2
[click to view]

Maj Fiil-Flynn, The Electricity Crisis in Soweto, Municipal Services Project paper, 2001.

Patrick Bond, Unsustainable South AfricaEnvironment, Development and Social Protest, Pietermaritzburg: University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press and London: The Merlin Press, 2002.

SA Local Government Research Centre (SALGRC), SA local government briefing (Supplementary), 2011.


[click to view]

[click to view]

[click to view]

[click to view]

[click to view]

Media Links

[click to view]

[click to view]

Other CommentsThis is an on-going struggle as the court case continues and electricity prices increase annually in South Africa. The government has recently secured a huge loan from the World Bank to build coal-powered fire stations and these will not only add to carbon emissions but will lead to further price increases. The struggle of the Chiawelo people is at the cutting edge of the struggle for clean, safe affordable energy that does not contribute to climate change.
Meta Information
ContributorTrevor Ngwane
Last update08/04/2014