‘At best, [South Africa] is going through oscillations, twists, folds and turns. At worst, it is in a stationary state, and in some areas of social and political life almost close to stasis,’ (Achille Mbembe, Mail & Guardian, 28.03.2013).
While writing up my fieldwork notes for my recent Master of Science degree, I was unexpectedly reminded of notes I made during fieldwork for my Bachelor of Engineering degree, which I undertook some twenty-something years ago. The subject matters were quite different: my BEng project considered a theory of world-class manufacturing more relevant to a newly democratic and inclusive economy whereas the MSc focused on anti-corruption efforts in procurement. While much had changed in South Africa during that time, the same concern raised as a risk factor in 1997 had, by 2019, become a full-blown crisis: the instability of the state-owned power company, Eskom.
My memories of arriving in South Africa for the first time are muddied. I was born to Xhosa parents in exile and, as such, I had never been able to visit. My parents had eagerly returned to South Africa almost as soon as they were allowed, and my father had taken up work in the diplomatic service. This was not only my first visit to Africa, but it was also my first trip outside Europe. It was one that was both daunting and exciting, as a result.
At the time, almost no academic writing considered the idea of world-class manufacturing in an African context, but I was lucky that my supervisor had taken an interest in forging links with South African institutions. Back then, the paperwork required to undertake fieldwork was minimal. My family loosely arranged my itinerary and some interview contacts, and so I arrived with my four-year-old son in tow to a hot, dusty Johannesburg Airport. I was to meet my tatomncinci (my father’s younger brother) at the airport for what was actually the second time (the first having been some ten years prior to that in Geneva Airport). He would fly with my son to Port Elizabeth while I went on to Cape Town to stay with friends of his and carry out interviews there for the first few days.
The first thing that struck me about South Africa was that it had elements of familiarity, but it definitely wasn’t home. I looked like I belonged, but I didn’t think or act like it. We hadn’t discussed aspects of the fieldwork such as positionality before I left, so it wasn’t something that factored into my thoughts in a structured way at the time. I was struck by the similarity of social structures within the factory environment, albeit far more starkly segregated than they would be in the UK, and very clearly along racial lines. I’d used minibus taxis to get around Cape Town but then I’d walked from the staff entrances into the executive meeting room areas to meet with the managers. I had a different level of access to privilege from day one.
However, my fieldwork coinciding with this first visit to my family’s home country meant that I wasn’t staying in hostels and hotels but with family I’d yet to get to know. Everywhere I went, I was faced with introductions to aunts, uncles and cousins who’d heard all about me over the years but whose names I barely knew. I flew from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth and drove with my uncle to Uitenhage, his home, to find that my son had barely missed his Mum (after all, we had spoken on the phone every day). He fit in straight away—as kids do at that age—insisting one day on going to school with his older cousins, organizing games of cricket and running around excitedly to introduce his new friends to me ‘No, Mummy, I don’t know their names. They can tell you,’ then turning to them one at a time with a decidedly British slowing down and raising his voice form of communication: ‘Hey… tell… my Mummy [points at me] your [points at child] name.’
To him, it was all a wild adventure—and he immediately loved that children there had much more freedom to roam than at home in the UK. He was just as comfortable running around suburban neighbourhoods as he was in townships and rural villages. Staying with family meant that we spent more time off the tourist trail than on it.
We drove from Port Elizabeth to Misty Mount (just outside Mthatha in the Eastern Cape) to visit my mother’s family in a borrowed, barely roadworthy 1960s Mercedes. My grandmother’s place was a collection of buildings which spread out from her rondavel. There was not a mains water supply (they are still waiting) so the loo was a ‘long drop’ arrangement. Luckily, I’d also spent time camping in the UK in the 1970s, so the idea of a dug-out latrine was not entirely unknown to me. But then, at night, helpers (younger cousins mainly) brought buckets to our room in case of need overnight. In the morning, ablutions would involve several larger buckets being delivered and it felt very much as though we were waited on hand and foot—we were very special visitors, after all. Family yet not familiar.
Driving the route back to Port Elizabeth was more treacherous—the rain had made the gravel roads around Misty Mount slippery and the roadwork upgrades had only just begun in the Eastern Cape. The drive, which had been spectacular for its amazing views and countryside on the way up, was now quite spectacularly dangerous at times. Too many sites were punctuated by the wreckage of cars that hadn’t made some of the more challenging bends around the hills. The scenes were sobering far too frequently, but it made our safe return to Port Elizabeth all the more a celebration.
During that time, we didn’t so much experience formal blackouts as unplanned power outages. I quickly learned to treat non-working traffic lights as four-way stops, and soon worked out that everyone had a workaround ready to go. ‘Eish Eskom’ became a familiar exclamation of frustration, but, for the manufacturers I spoke to, it was the uncontrollable element they all considered one of their highest risk factors.
Since that first fieldwork visit, I have visited South Africa regularly and my husband and I now own a house in Johannesburg. The impact of the rollout of electricity has been tangible—my aunts in Misty Mount now have mains electricity (with a generator on standby), although they still rely on rainwater collection tanks rather than mains water.
I vaguely recall that, in 1997, most of my uncles and aunts had pay-as-you-go cell phones whereas the UK at the time was still contract-based and it was rare to see mobile phones in use. These days in South Africa, even my young cousins’ children have tablets and laptops. The requirement to increase capacity for electricity has not just been a result of the rollout of power across the country to formerly neglected villages and townships; it has also had to factor in the boom of data-driven technology. The demand for power has become a much greater requirement for individuals as well as businesses.
At the same time, Eskom’s trajectory has been interesting—it went from a struggling, unreliable service provider in the 1990s to one that, by 2008, appeared to have achieved a respectable level of stability and had a better credit rating than the country as a whole. Since then, however, Eskom has experienced severe decline and has been the focus of many of the investigations into state capture and corruption.
In March 2019, when I arrived in South Africa for my MSc research, it was in the midst of rolling blackouts (the dreaded ‘load shedding’). Focusing my case study research on the anti-corruption failures in Eskom’s procurement, therefore, made sense. This time, the issues were far more wide-reaching than the occasional unplanned outages I had experienced that first time in 1997. In fact, the impact of load shedding has been widely reported in the international press as having stymied economic growth in the country, and I could see precisely how.
When my husband and I arrived, we heard that load shedding had been implemented at level four, which we knew would have some impact on us personally. However, after a few days during which we only had power intermittently and for no more than an hour at a time, we realised we had to adjust to more than basic workarounds.
While load shedding was a nationwide requirement to prevent the entire national grid going offline (which would be far more catastrophic), it had the effect of further exposing vulnerabilities in Eskom’s ageing infrastructure. Load shedding was a scheduled event, taking place on a rotational basis, with the power cut off to specific areas. Level four meant that we would have at least one blackout period per day and at times, two. The blackouts would be four hours nominally allowing a further 30 minutes for the restart. As it happens, the restarts more often exposed the local infrastructure to power surges, as devices that had been left powered up would all restart at once. Our local substation was particularly vulnerable and experienced tripping despite multiple restart attempts. Other substations were vulnerable to cable and equipment thefts during blackout periods, so the concerns were country-wide.
The difference between the outages I experienced in 1997 and in 2019 are also a factor of just how much more dependent we are on technology these days. In 1997, I had no access to a cell phone or mobile data and I didn’t even own a laptop. The loss of power, therefore, felt far less critical. Most businesses worked with cash and credit card imprint machines, so, for the most part, they would revert to a handheld calculator or pen and paper to record transactions. It was slower but not crippling.
In 2019, the impact went far deeper. Businesses that had switched to VoIP systems were simply cut off from their customers, and only those stores with their own backups could continue to trade. For a while, without mains power, I could at least get mobile data and carry out my research, but the cell phone networks’ power backups faltered after 24 or more hours without power—data services being the most power-dependent. As we were now part-time residents, we had the benefit of local knowledge, so weren’t inconvenienced for too long once we picked up a small generator.
While my plan for the research had been set back by a few days, I was put in touch with interview subjects who had been closely connected to Eskom. My experience helped me to paint a more vivid picture of the environment in which my case study was situated. I used my personal experiences to illustrate some key failings at Eskom. Because state capture commission hearings were ongoing and regularly featured in the news and on the radio, I was also able to use that to add to my research, while the inquiry detailed many of the issues at Eskom specifically. My interviews were, therefore, informed by experience of working in procurement, some understanding of the history and the culture in South Africa and a recognition of my own positionality.
Although I was mainly based in Gauteng for the research in 2019, my husband and I travelled to the Eastern Cape—once again combining fieldwork interviews with family visits. This time, though, the drive down was in a modern, reasonably well-equipped Honda and the roads themselves were far less treacherous. Listening to our experiences of load shedding, my uncle was amused but he noted ruefully that the problems of ageing power infrastructure had been a problem in the Eastern Cape for far longer. By way of explanation, he suggested that his suburb in Uitenhage was no longer part of the load shedding schedule, as it had such regular problems with tripping and outages. The joke was that they had no idea whether it was load shedding or just ‘business as usual’.
While South Africa itself has undergone huge changes, most evident in its infrastructure, between my fieldwork visits, there is a certain element of ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’ While change has meant more opportunity for some, for others, the changing fortunes of Eskom reflect those of the country as a whole. The ‘lost decade’ of Jacob Zuma’s presidency has halted and, in many cases, reversed much of the progress toward a more inclusive society. Corruption having been the central factor in the failure of many state enterprises, the country is once again having to rebuild and recover⎈