First world ambitions, third world realities

by The Editor

SERIES: The instantaneous and dramatic nature of current affairs lends itself to a kind of historical amnesia, one where the captivating nature of those things unfolding today, causes one to forget the bigger picture. From the Archives aims to put forward the odd reminder that, more often than not, history is merely repeating itself. In all likelihood, somewhere, someone has already experienced and commented on those all-consuming issues that appear to have materialised only yesterday. Today a 2008 article on copper cable theft, Eskom advertising and how first world ambitions and third world realities often meet in rather brutal fashion in South Africa.

First world ambitions, third world realities

By: Gareth van Onselen

8 March 2008

In many ways, South Africa is a country with first world ambitions, yet constantly hampered by third world realities.

We have the largest economy in Africa, but an unemployment rate of 40% and a vast percentage of the population dependent on state assistance, in one form or another. We have one of the largest police forces in the world, but the highest violent crime rate. We have huge, urban cities and immense rural tracks of land. Indeed, we must be the only country in the world building a super rail underground train, while simultaneously trying to eradicate the bucket system.

This contradiction plays itself out on many different levels; and perhaps the most complex of these, is culturally. For example, we have democracy that caters for both tribal chiefs and directors-general; we have a medical system that caters for traditional healers and doctors with university degrees; and we have brutal initiation ceremonies in the Eastern Cape while, at national level, we debate legislation on abortion.

At the furthest end of the spectrum the contrast between these two competing worlds becomes so stark as to border on the inexplicable: While the Governor of the Reserve Bank explains to the portfolio committee on finance (and the world) why inflation targeting is necessary, the Mpumalanga legislature is considering a piece of legislation making it illegal to brand a person a witch (did you know some 350 people were convicted of such a crime in 2004?).

Throw in other cultural practices, like the selling of human body parts, and things really become surreal. You will be surprised how often these sorts of cultural conflicts play themselves out, in day-to-day political life.

I was recently struck by a rather powerful example, one with a bit of an ironic twist. Let me set it out for you.

The DA recently received a reply back from the Minister of Public Enterprises, on the annual cost to Eskom of cable theft. The reply only set out the cost for the last five or six years but I remembered we had asked this question previously and, after a trip to the archives, I found the relevant earlier response and put together the following composite list, for the last 14 years (I don’t think you can load tables onto this site, so here it is in bullet-point form, in millions of Rands):

• 1994: R9.9
• 1995: R11.6
• 1996: R11.6
• 1997: R14.3
• 1998: R15.4
• 1999: R22.9
• 2000: R21.7
• 2001: R56.1
• 2002: R94.9
• 2003: R76.0
• 2004: R27.9
• 2005: R26.5
• 2006: R25.0
• 2007: R25.2

There is a fairly evident trend. The amount systematically increases over the first nine or so years, peaking at R94 million in 2002, before dropping and levelling out over the last four years at around R25 million.

(In comparison, the cost of cable theft to Telkom is considerably higher (see here) as it is for the country’s various railway operators, but I do not have complete figures for these and can make my point without them. Nevertheless, they illustrate the general problem is not improving, as Eskom’s figures might suggest.)

There are numerous reasons for people to steal cables. They range from coordinated and planned theft, by copper syndicates, to individual acts of vandalism. With regard to Eskom (which doesn’t use copper like Telkom) the problem generally boils down to the desperate and the poor, stripping steel cables to sell to scrap metal dealers, for cash.

For the first ten years or so, despite widespread anecdotal evidence that the problem was increasing rapidly, the state did little counteract it. Indeed, as is so often the case with the ANC government (particularly with regard to the country’s physical infrastructure), it took action only when the problem reached a critical point.

No doubt many of you are familiar with Eskom’s campaign to highlight the problem and increase public awareness. It is perhaps typified by a series of adverts run on television, radio and in print in which cables thieves were banded “izinyoka” (the Xhosa word for snake).

The relevant one-minute TV advert is as follows:


For the sake of posterity, I have transcribed the narrative. It goes as follows:

[It opens with a visual shot of girl in hospital on life support. The electricity cuts. The room goes dark. She stops being able to breath. You see the silhouette of a man walking down a dark alley.] “There are many izinyoka among us these days” [The man turns to the camera. His eyes morph into evil-looking, yellow snake eyes. He turns away. Cut to a train station and people waiting for a train on the platform.] “Izinyoka that cause havoc for all of us by stealing electrical cables and disrupting the power supply”. [In the dark background the man – now with snake eyes again – cuts the cable, the train goes dark and runs through the station. Cut to the man walking outside, up a flight of steps and up to an electrical box] “Izinyoka that cause danger to the community by making illegal connections.” [The man – now with normal eyes – cuts something in the electrical box. Cut to a shot of a darkened street and a kid pushing a steel bicycle wheel with a stick, he pushes it over a half-cut, sparking electrical cable. You hear a scream as it cuts back to the man at the box. He looks at the camera. His eyes turn to snake eyes and a forked tongue shoots out of his mouth.] “This is not a victimless crime, you are the victim.” [Cut to aerial shot of the man walking in a darkened alley. His shadow stretches out before him like a darting snake. Cut to a shot of a power plant. Inside the power station there is a shot of the man – still with snake eyes – he cuts an overhead cable with a pair of wire cutters. The screen cuts out, like a television when switched off.] “Do not take the law into your own hands. Call the Eskom crime line. Your confidentiality is guaranteed.” [Text to this effect appears against a black backdrop. Cut to a close up of the man’s face. He turns his snake eyes downwards and the shot fades to black.] “Help Eskom put these izinyoka were they deserve to be – in a hole.” [Shot pans out and we see the man is in prison, behind bars. The ad ends with a shot of the Eskom logo and its crime line number.]

There is very little reference to the advert on the internet, save for this one statement by the Advertising Standards Authority obviously reacting to a complaint. The relevant section of the statement reads:

“The Eskom advertisement featuring characters referred to as Izinyoka (“snakes”) stealing electricity cables, offended some people who complained that the ad created the impression that only black people steal electricity cables. These critics alleged that the ad was therefore discriminatory and offensive. The word “Izinyoka” was also criticised as it has a negative connotation…After careful consideration, the ASA decided the ad contained no insinuation of racism, discrimination or inducement of fear. In a culturally diverse society it is to be expected that such issues will regularly surface. Previous examples include the Med-Lemon case featuring a traditional healer and the Hi-Fi Corporation ad depicting a Chinese man in the act of bargaining. It is essential that advertisers familiarise themselves with the core values of various cultural groups and ensure that those values are not ridiculed in any way.”

The racism angle is, quite frankly, boring. But I believe there certainly is something to the inducement of fear angle, particularly when one considers just what a powerful cultural symbol the snake is in many African cultures (and, of course, one need only look at the advert to see that there is a clear and deliberate attempt on the part of the advertisers to generate an atmosphere of fear – just need imagine a small child watching the advert, by way of practical illustration). Eskom’s decision to choose the snake was not random, but very deliberate; and designed to generate two emotional reactions – fear and a sense of evil.

Of course, as with all cultures, it would be wrong to suggest that there was a uniform understanding of this idea of an “izinyoka” but one need just trawl the newspapers for evidence that, in many African cultures, the snake is a powerful and evil creature; and certainly one to be feared.

In the mid 1990s, when Limpopo was still the Northern Province more than 100 people were burnt to death as witches in the province. One of the main myths, responsible for a number of these deaths, was that of a snake that took human form, and that drank human blood. The Mail & Guardian described one such case like this:

“Last year a development programme in Hluvukani, a settlement for Mozambican war refugees near the Kruger National Park, was stalled by allegations of sorcery. A member of the committee elected to oversee a water supply scheme in the settlement fell ill and was paralysed. The chairman was promptly accused of owning a mamlambo – a snake that lived under his home and, at night, turned into a white woman that had sex with him. Residents said the mamlambo gave him luck and watered his fields with nutrients that could not evaporate in the harsh Lowveld sun. That is why his fields flowered and he became wealthy while others grew steadily poorer. Only the chairman had to feed the snake – with human blood and the misfortune of others. He was blamed for his colleague’s stroke and hounded out of the settlement. The development programme collapsed.”

In May 1999, when a powerful tornado ripped through Mt Ayliff in the Eastern Cape, killing 21 people and injuring 300, people from the local community blamed a snake that allegedly lived in a nearby river. A community member told the City Press: “The snake, who does this thing, lives in the river. It travels for years and only comes out when it is angry. The arrival of the snake would be signalled by a blue mist, like that seen before the tornado. It is nature that the snake must travel.”

More recently, a local Limpopo newspaper told of a Zionist worshiper who drowned in the Westfalia Dam, just outside Tzaneen in 2003, while engrossed in a ceremonial ritual. It was soon alleged that the man had actually fallen victim to a snake-like monster that supposedly seizes people and drags them under the water. According to reports, local baptismal ceremonies are often too vigorous – people are immersed for too long a period of time – which obviously leads to a lack of oxygen and drowning. This is, in turn, attributed to the presence of evil and thus the creation of a myth that a snake has dragged people down.

And, more recently still, in 2005 it was reported that a women and her four children – again, in Limpopo – were being threatened with death and that their house would be torched because her late husband, a sangoma, had returned from the dead in the form of a huge snake, with a human head. The wife was accused of feeding the snake, which allegedly wore glasses like her late husband, in the middle of the night.

These are just a few of many such stories. But they make the point. Eskom was invoking a very powerful cultural symbol in running that campaign: the symbol of an evil snake. And it knew that it was walking a fine line between generating a very powerful emotional reaction on the one hand, and generating an altogether more dangerous response, on the other. In fact, Eskom gives the game away in the advert, when it slips in the line: “Do not take the law into your own hands” (a line somewhat undermined a few seconds later by the plea to help Eskom put these izinyoka “in a hole”).

So it was with great interest then, that I read the following story from late January this year about a man and two accomplices caught stealing cables by members of a local community in Pietermaritzburg. They were severely beaten and left for dead, the one with a snake tied round his neck, reportedly, a direct reference to Eskom’s ‘izinyoka campaign’. The Natal Witness, which originally reported the story, also pointed out that, ironically, Eskom’s load shedding had created ideal conditions for cable theft – no power and no light.

And so the story comes full circle.

On the one hand we have a power utility, tasked with setting up and managing South Africa’s electricity infrastructure. Yet it is hampered by two things: On a national level, poor planning and bad political judgement and, on the ground, millions of people living in poverty, some of whom – because of the lack of delivery – have turned to ripping off the state’s assets for money. Part of that poor planning leads to a delayed response to the problem of cable theft and, when the response is forthcoming, it relies on invoking powerful cultural symbols (as opposed to the rule of law, or a sense of justice) to counteract the problem. In the meantime, Eskom’s bad planning and subsequent reaction at national level (load shedding) fuels an environment in which cable theft can increase further. And its plea, based as it is on emotion and superstition rather than rational consideration, runs the risk of invoking an equally irrational response; which is exactly what happens.

And therein lies the irony. For you can debate and argue about how South Africa’s many different cultural beliefs best fit into our democracy and to what extent they are or are not compatible with liberal ideals like human rights, justice and the rule of law but when the state itself is forced to rely on those cultural beliefs to deal with crime it says as much about its ability to deliver basic services as it does about how difficult it is to instil those values entrenched in our constitution, in a desperate and impoverished people. And even then, the message is misinterpreted.

A further irony, of course, is that none of those first world ideals can even be applied to the state in this instance. Not only is Eskom the epitome of poor political management but, that poor management is directly responsible for fueling an environment in which the very thing it is spending millions to combat, can flourish.

I would like to suggest that, in contrast to many South Africans, an apt description of the ANC government is of one with third world ideals, constantly hampered by third world realities. And the problems lies just as much with the former, as it does with the latter.

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