As the lights flicker on and off in South Africa, government has come under increasing pressure to resolve and account for the “electricity crisis”.
Earlier this year President Jacob Zuma claimed that: “The energy problem is not our problem today. It is a problem of apartheid, which we are resolving.”
In a parliamentary question, leader of opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, asked: “What exactly does [Zuma] mean when he says the electricity crisis is caused by apartheid?” In his response, Zuma claimed that: “In 1994, only 34% of South Africans had access to electricity.”
Given that, according to South Africa’s latest official statistics, more than 85% of households were connected to mains electricity in 2013, it is greater demand that helps explain the pressure on the system, he implied. Is Zuma correct? What does the data say? We investigated.
Where does the 34% figure come from?
The question of how many households had access to electricity in 1994 is clearly a confusing one, as Zuma quoted a figure of 50% when delivering a speech on Freedom Day in 2014, contradicting his latest assertion. We tried to contact the Presidency about the source of the claim but, despite sending numerous requests to acting spokesperson Harold Maloka, we have not received a response.
The Presidency’s Department of Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation’s development indicators state that access to electricity in 1994/ 1995 stood at 50.9%, not Zuma’s claim of 34%. Hassen Mohamed, head of local government performance assessment in the Presidency, told Africa Check the department’s estimate of 50.9% was extrapolated from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) data on access to electricity after 1994, and a University of Cape Town study where the figure of 35% was given for 1990.
From the document provided, however, it was not possible to work out where that number originated. The department of energy says 34%, but has given different figures.
Next we went to the department of energy. Pinning down firm data on access to electricity in 1994 is harder than you would think. And it is not just Zuma who is confused. In 2012 then Minister of Energy Dipuo Peters claimed that 30% of households had access to electricity in 1994. In 2013 she claimed that the figure was 36%.
And a page on the department’s website claims that: “Access to electricity in 1994 was at 34%.”
We asked the department’s spokesperson, Johannes Mokobane, for a source for the numbers. Our queries were sent to Khorommbi Bongwe, the line manager for the Integrated National Electrification Programme. He told Africa Check that “according to Stats SA access to electricity was sitting at 34% … Even the Presidency is aware that we were actually sitting at 34% in 1994”.
Stats SA says official stats don’t support the claim
However, Stats SA’s manager of service delivery statistics, Niël Roux, told Africa Check that he was not aware of any Stats SA data that supported the claim. Roux said that the earliest data the organisation has is from the 1995 October Household Survey, which found that 63.5% of households used electricity for lighting. But he said the data wasn’t used often today because the survey was “hamstrung by a series of methodological and practical issues”. Survey estimated 53.6% of households had access in 1994
Prior to 1994 there was very little national data on access to basic services in South Africa. In late 1993 and early 1994 the Southern Africa Labour Development Research Unit undertook a national survey to determine the conditions under which South Africans were living. It found that 53.6% of households had access to electricity.
Professor Ingrid Woolard, a University of Cape Town economics professor whose research interests include survey methodology, said that the survey was “fairly reliable, but it was a small survey – less than 9 000 households – so there will be some margin of error”.
Stats SA’s Roux said that the Stats SA’s “earliest credible data source is probably the 1996 Census”, which found that 58.2% of households in South Africa had access to electricity that year.
Zuma’s claim probably applies to 1990 or 1991
University of Cape Town professor Anton Eberhard, who has written extensively about electricity provision and infrastructure in South Africa, told Africa Check that the claimed figure probably applies to 1990 or 1991.
“I suspect the 34% number refers to a date earlier than 1994, probably 1991 when the electrification drive commenced,” he said.
Professor Harald Winkler, director of the energy research centre, agreed: “I would have thought 34% might have been 1990, rather than 1994.” Africa Check was unable to find any credible research or data for access to electricity between 1990 and 1992.
Conclusion: access to electricity in 1994 was likely around 50%
Zuma claims that 34% of South Africans had access to electricity in 1994. Despite numerous attempts to confirm the source of his claim we did not hear back from his office. The available data suggests that the claim is wrong.
A national study conducted over 1993 and 1994 estimated that access stood at 53.6% and the national census in 1996 found 58.2% of households had access that year. The broader claim about the number of people with access to electricity under apartheid is not wholly wrong. The experts we spoke with believe that only about 34% of households had access in 1990 or 1991 before the long drive began to increase access to electricity. Such a level of access left the majority of black South Africans without electricity for cooking, heating and lighting.
This article first appeared on Africa Check, a non-profit fact-checking organisation. Twitter: @AfricaCheck.