/ 7 August 2023

The role of Eskom in South African history

Screenshot 2023 08 07 At 08.49.12

An edited extract from ‘Eskom: Power, Politics and the (Post) Apartheid State’, by Faeeza Ballim

Chapter 2 – The Taming of the Waterberg

Iscor’s arrival in the Waterberg coincided with a period of introspection within the National Party (NP). A factional battle that had long been brewing within the NP boiled over in the aftermath of the Soweto uprising of 1976 as the apartheid government adopted what Deborah Posel has termed a new “language of legitimation”. 

The verligtes embraced commercial imperatives, even if this meant relaxing racial segregation, much to the chagrin of their verkrampte counterparts, who derided the embrace of individual enrichment and saw it as a betrayal of the ideal of a classless Afrikaner unity. 

The farmers of the Northern Transvaal, of which the Waterberg was a part, were an important electoral constituency, and the NP held campaign rallies across the region in an attempt to stem party defections. 

In one such rally, held in Ellisras in November 1978, Prime Minister PW Botha appealed for party unity in the face of mounting claims from his own verligte camp that a split might be an essential component of the party’s “purification” process, and he defended the need for policy changes. 

The rift eventually grew serious enough to cause a breakaway led by Andries Treurnicht, who had served as the NP’s parliamentary representative for the Waterberg since 1971. Treurnicht formed the Conservative Party in 1982, and the party opposed the concessions the NP had begun to make to big capital as well as its apparent relaxation of racial segregation. As apartheid changed its form in the 1980s, the Group Areas Act remained as the last pillar of grand apartheid before it was finally repealed in 1988. 

In Ellisras, despite its apparent verkrampte hue, the Group Areas Board had not implemented racial segregation when Iscor first arrived. Africans continued to live on white-owned farms […] Local government officials believed the forced removals of Africans […] would cause a labour shortage and so harm the existing economic fabric.   

Within the government’s conception of regional development, the homelands served as pools of African labour. A 1965 memorandum written by an […] official about the plan to develop the Ellisras region stated it was government policy to encourage autonomous regional development in line with the then-normative pattern in “Western democracies”. 

In this pretension of minimal government control, autonomous regional development was a systemic effort to ensure the “optimum development” of the region’s natural resources, including labour. The people and things […] in the region would be reduced to units within their appropriate categories, and the interaction of these “resources” would ensure development. 

Local gents at the local level were to make their views known through representative organisations, and the government weighed in through various interest-bearing ministries. Since Africans lacked any rights of citizenship in the white towns that contained the infrastructural bearers of modernity, they fit into the calculus of the regional planners only in their role as labourers to be shepherded to the homelands, where they were officially resident. Forced removals can be seen as an important part of the praxis of authoritarian high modernism and they fit into the apartheid government’s systemic vision of regional development. 

Soon after Iscor arrived in Ellisras, African families living in the vicinity […]  were forcibly removed to an African township in […] Lebowa. But Iscor, armed with its technological expertise, did not initiate the removals. Rather, Iscor’s arrival heralded population growth in Ellisras and the government was forced to turn a regulatory eye to the town to ensure its orderly development — in line with the “modern” city in the apartheid imaginary. 

Apart from containing the appropriate infrastructure, the modern city was one that was racially segregated. This, in turn, depended on an underlying economic prosperity so that farms and businesses could survive despite forced removals, which, after all, moved African workers further away from their places of employment. 

In Ellisras, forced removals were the product of negotiation and compromise between the Group Areas Board, local and provincial authorities, white residents of Ellisras, and Iscor. 

While Iscor provided the infrastructural tools for the creation of Ellisras as a town worthy of government regulation, it was chiefly concerned with the operations of its coal mine, and there is little to suggest it was deeply invested in adhering to the dictates of the Group Areas Board. In the end, Iscor’s activities enabled the extension of governmental power from the capital to the border region of Ellisras in a mediated and complex manner.