In the township, an electricity gap can always be plugged
A funny thing happened to my friend, the late actor and poet John Matshikiza, several years ago: he woke up one morning to discover that the door to his home had grown legs during the night.
Yes, a door. Taken from its hinges. Gone. Just like that. And a fantastic job it had been (nothing else was taken from the house) – it was as if a door had never closed the gaping hole.
Not only had crime reached new heights, as Matshikiza later observed, the criminals themselves had become sophisticated. It was no ordinary door; it was one of those gargantuan, heavy, wooden, precious antiques. Fortunately for my friend, he was soon reunited with it.
But he was right about crime and the growing sophistication of criminals. And although there was nothing sophisticated about what I experienced recently, you had to marvel at their daring ingenuity.
I was visiting a cousin in the township of Tsakane near Brakpan, Gauteng, and woke up to discover that the electricity had been "stolen". When I tried to make coffee the kettle responded with stubborn silence.
I assumed it was another of Eskom's unfunny power outage games. It also did not help that my host had left early for God knows where – nobody ever knows his movements.
So instead of juicy pork chops and red wine for lunch, I had a peanut butter sandwich and apple juice. Of course, I could have braaied the meat outside, but I was counting on the power coming on.
My host (a misnomer) was still not home the next day and the damn electricity was not on either. Funny thing, though, the street lights had been on during the night and a neighbour had been playing music a tad loudly.
Something had to be wrong, I figured, so I went to a friendly neighbour and asked whether she had any idea what could be the matter with the electricity.
She looked at me, smiled sadly and said: "You too? Ha! It's the boys. They have done it again. They have stolen electricity.
"You are not the only one. I, too, am affected and so is this neighbour and that one and yourselves. They have stolen our electricity, the boys."
But how? To live in Johannesburg's salubrious suburbs is to miss out on the valuable free basic education available in the townships.
I asked the neighbour how it could have been done and she said: "Come, let me show you."
We went outside her yard to a high pole with a huge electrical box at the top of it. Pointing to it, she said: "There, that's where they steal it. I don't know how, but that's where they steal it."
She said I should not worry; someone would be coming later in the day to attend to the problem.
A man from Eskom? Clearly I was a stupid ignorant.
No, she said, Eskom was useless – unless, of course, we wanted to go a whole year without electricity.
At a price
At any rate, the neighbour said, what normally happened was that all those affected clubbed together and called "this guy who fixes these things at a price". It was normal in the township, I was told.
When I asked around, I discovered that what I had taken to be highly unusual was everyday reality for most of them. It hit home that it was not for nothing that we have that dreadful advert on television warning us about the threat posed by the izinyoka, the electricity-cable thieves, to our power supply.
The problem is, cable theft is so rife in the townships that ordinary people have found "clever" ways of connecting to power illegally. Ultimately, though, somebody has to pay for the illegal connections.
Is it any wonder, then, that on Mandela Day the people of Tsakane and KwaThema, a neighbouring township that shares the same electricity supply, were out on the streets, wreaking havoc and causing mayhem, protesting about increased electricity costs and the cancellation of monthly subsidised electricity?
It is what happens when demand exceeds supply, and there is nothing much that Mr Fixit will be able to do when the supply, God forbid, has been cut off completely.
Or is there? One never knows, what with the ingenious township folk, some of whom, without any hint of irony, were determined to bomb the main power station during their protest.
And that is how I spent my 67 minutes on Mandela Day – wondering about the state of electricity in the townships.
Tiisetso Makube is a Johannesburg-based writer