Interview with Sizwe

Thursday, November 13th

Sizwe has been working with the Cape Town Project Centre for four years now. His insightfulness, community involvement, and guidance has been very valuable. By interviewing him, we gained a lot of knowledge about energy usage in the informal settlements.

Sizwe grew up in Nyanga with his mother and twin sister, and he currently resides in his shack with his two nephews (Abongile and Anele). He lives in the informal section (Mkhonto Square) of the community which is surrounded by the more formal dwellings as well as the backyarders. Since he has lived there so long, he knows most people in the community.

For most of his life, Sizwe did not have electricity in his shack. His mother used paraffin to cook meals inside and candles for light. As a result of all the smoke from cooking, “she [his mother] had asthma and I had issues with breathing.”

Beginning in the early 2000s, streetlights started being put up around the community. People saw the lights and “felt they also had a right to electricity.” Soon afterwards, they began tapping into the streetlights and brought intermittent electricity into the community.

Another method of getting electricity was from the hostels or the government housing with four families living in them, located near the community. With the hostel residents’ permission, a community member would pay an initial connection fee of R250 and an agreed upon amount each month to run a long electrical wire from the hostile all the way back to their shack in the community. The people in the hostel could often pay for their own electricity expenses by renting out some electricity to the people in Nyanga.

The community members with electricity began buying appliances such as fridges, stoves, and heaters, as well as televisions. Before the community received electricity, kids would gather around battery-powered radios for entertainment; now they would rush into the shacks with a television. It was “like going to the cinemas.”

Sizwe began working in the construction business in 2005 and had a cell phone he needed to charge. He would ask his mother about getting electricity in the shack, but electrical connections were still illegal, so she responded “we will wait because it is out of law and if we connect what will stop us from doing the next thing out of law and the next.” Her Christian morals were very strong. Therefore, it was not until they had a trusted neighbor with an electrical box in their shack that they first tapped into electricity and brought it into their home. Sizwe no longer had to leave his phone at a neighbor’s to charge as he now had his own electricity. The family was also able to have a fridge, electric stove, three light bulbs, and even Sizwe’s addition of a television for the first time. After the initial connection, families sharing the box collectively pay for the electricity a month plus a monthly fee of R50. For Sizwe, pre-paying R200 usually lasted about two weeks.

As the families sharing the box also began increasing the number of appliances, and thus electricity usage, the box began tripping all the time. His neighbors shared their electrical connection with four other families. To prevent the box from tripping, they decided two of the families would continue using the box and the other two would tap into the pole; this only cost R150 for the initial connection. A few people in the community know how to make the initial electrical connections, although they remain unnamed.

While the pole is more reliable because it trips less, there is sometimes unreliability when paying the owner because he does use the e full amount of money given to him to pay for the electricity. Also, the, appliances need to be  fixed frequently as they burn out from having too many people connected to one electrical source. Sizwe needs to buy and install new plugs every two months because they keep burning out, which is high maintenance. Additionally, he has had to get his fridge fixed three times in one month and his television fixed three times in the past year. He chooses to no longer use his microwave because it has broken so many times. He also frequently has to replace the incandescent light bulbs, normally R10, because they keep burning out, unless he buys the more expense CLF bulbs for R30 from a store further away.

Sizwe’s favorite meal is an African salad (Umphokoqo). To prepare it, he boils water using a kettle and then mixes all the ingredients in a pot for roughly 20 minutes. He does this all while wearing shoes to avoid being shocked by the stove.

In general, cooking is the largest energy use, although heating is another sizeable expense. Sometimes people will use paraffin heaters and paraffin stoves to reduce costs, but a majority of the people use electricity as they prefer to spend money on one source of energy. Consequently, many people buy electricity in winter forcing Eskom to monitor it. Blackouts occur as frequently as once a day in the communities. The two kinds of blackouts he experiences are planned and unplanned. In order to save electricity and limit the electrical drain, Eskom intentionally shuts off the power to certain areas at a prearranged time. The more problematic blackouts are the unplanned ones, as they are caused by failures along the connections. Blackouts are not the only problem experienced with electricity. When winds are high, there are occasionally fires at the electrical transformers. However, community members take these risks because “we need the light.”

Since Sizwe has encountered these problems, we asked about solar products and other energy efficient products. He has considered a variety of products, but they are all very expensive. For solar panels, he faces the difficulty of having to buy new appliances to use the power provided by them as the panels only produce DC power. When considering energy efficient products, his biggest consideration is the initial cost.