Interview: Trevor Ngwane

The chairperson of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee explains why he was expelled from the party.

Were you born and brought up in Soweto?
No I come from Zululand. My mother was a nurse at the Charles Johnson Memorial Mission Hospital run by Dr Anthony Barker. She retired just last year. The hospital was home to me. I learned some important things from Barker - simplicity, love for the people, honesty. He spoke Zulu and created an island of non-racialism there, and as a result I never considered white people to be "them" or different. It's probably why later I never fell under the influence of the black consciousness movement, though I understand the need for black pride. I went to Fort Hare from 1979-82 and studied industrial psychology and sociology but I couldn't complete my BA then because of all the strikes and political disruptions. I finished it by correspondence through Unisa when I was working in Johannesburg. Then I did an honours degree in sociology at Wits. That's where I met my wife Miranda - I was her tutor.

Why did the ANC expel you in 2000?
I was a ward councillor for Pimville in Soweto. The Sunday World decided to publish a forum on Igoli 2002. Kenny Fihla, of the Johannesburg City Council mayoral committee, put the case for the plans and they invited me to put the case against. In my article I explained why my constituents did not agree with the Johannesburg metro's privatisation plans and neither did I. By Wednesday of that week I had been stripped of all my positions in the ANC including chairing the town-planning committee.

Two weeks later there was a disciplinary hearing. Fihla, who was also chair of the ANC regional council, appointed the members of the committee. They suspended me for two years. I appealed to the provincial ANC and they decided that my suspension would be reduced to nine months if I publicly recanted views. They clearly calculated, as a carrot to lure me, that this would allow me back into the ANC fold in time for the December local elections, so that I would be able to continue as a councillor. I called a public meeting to see what my constituents thought. They told me not to recant and said the party had no right to kick me out. So the two-year suspension remained. The ANC didn't have the guts to hold a by-election, so I continued as an independent until the local elections.

When my term of office was over the party wrote to me saying that if I stood as an independent I would be expelling myself. I did stand and lost, but I got 30 per cent of the vote, which was a very decent result. Half the Gauteng MECs, including the premier Shilowa, came to do door-to-door canvassing in Pimville. They also tarred a few roads for effect. If I had had political ambitions I would have put my head under the table, ignored the people's opposition and toed the party line. At present I have no real plans to stand for the City Council, although I cannot rule this out.

Do you think the ANC's actions were reasonable?
I was an elected public representative, doing just that - representing my constituents' views. I know ANC members who have stolen and even killed, but they were not suspended. It seems preposterous, an over-reaction. The ANC is supposed to be a broad church, but now it is wrong for Cosatu to oppose privatisation. How can you be a trade unionist if you can't defend jobs?

Have you joined any other political party?
No. My own view is that we should develop a mass workers' movement, which in time might develop into a workers' party. But socialism has a pretty bad history in the world, especially Stalinism, and we must be humble if we are to avoid the same mistakes. The SACP tradition is Stalinist - the leader and the party line is everything.

We are searching for viable alternatives, for a politics than can just give people hope. A politics based on the fact that it is workers who produce the wealth in society, hence it is they who can rule without exploiting anyone. I have a friend who has worked for many years in the Eastern Cape helping domestic workers. He said that they bore insults and unfair treatment from their employers stoically, but when they heard that the ANC government's proposed minimum wage was R600 in urban areas and just R400 in rural areas they cried. "Is this what we have been waiting for?" they asked. It's like a child losing his innocence when he discovers his dad is not the man he had thought he was. Many workers loved the ANC, they made it into a workers' party, they sacrificed much to put it into power. When the ANC betrays workers, they lose all hope of a better future for themselves and their children.

Why are the anti-privatisation movement and the campaign against electricity cut-offs so closely connected, with many of the same people involved in both?
Eskom is cutting off electricity to people in arrears because of the government's privatisation policies. Jeff Radebe, the minister of public enterprises or "Mr Privatisation" as he's called by workers, told Eskom that it must prepare for privatisation by recovering all the debt owed to it. Electricity is no longer a service to the community, but a business commodity. Privatisation means attracting foreign investment which will be looking for profits. But profits are made from capital intensive rather than labour intensive enterprises. We all know that one of the major costs is labour, so to reduce costs they must shed jobs. If a company can employ cheap labour in Bangladesh that is where it is going to go. We need efficiency and the optimal use of resources but rational planning must not forget people. We have to be very careful about the centralised state because it failed in the Soviet Union. We need more participatory and decentralised decision-making.

As many as 45,000 people who are in arrears with their electricity bills have taken advantage of the Service Delivery Framework offer. Has the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee failed in its mission?
Eskom's timing was good - they made the offer just before Christmas when people had their bonuses and weren't easily avail- - able to attend SECC meetings and gave it a January deadline. That meant they had to make up their minds. Jeff Radebe is offering something real: halving people's debts and undertaking not to prosecute them. So we expected that victory, but believe it will be shortlived. We tell people, "You were wrong to sign, but we will help you." As happened after the 1997 amnesty, people will soon find they can't pay their bill plus a portion of their debt every month. We support the special deal for pensioners, but think it should be extended to the unemployed. The cost could be simply met by charging the biggest industrial users of electricity like Billiton, Columbus Steel and Alsaf one extra cent per unit. At the moment thet pay about 3 cents per kWh while Sowetans pay 31 cents.

Should people who can afford to pay their service charges do so?
I believe that people like myself who can afford to pay should not pay until we have solved the problem for everyone. They only send bills to those who pay. Those who can't afford to pay get cut off. It's unfair and divides the new black middle class and better paid workers from the rest of the population. The SECC's slogan is "Electricity is a right not a privilege". This means electricity for all, even if you cannot afford to pay.

What effect has the government's promise to provide a portion of water and electricity free had?
By February last year people were asking what had happened to the free supplies the government had promised just before the local elections. The mayor, Amos Masondo, said "You'll get it on July 1". They are still waiting, even though they marched to his house to remind him. The SDF deal made no mention of it. The government's promise was partly a response to the scandalous cholera outbreak in KwaZulu-Natal. That was caused by charging people for water when they had been getting it free under apartheid. They couldn't afford to pay and used untreated water from rivers instead. But mainly it was a desperate ploy to win the local elections; the policy goes directly against the government's Gear policy and the World Bank's cost recovery/user must pay recommendations. Even so, 60 per cent of the electorate didn't turn out to vote. ANC branches are moribund. They live for perhaps a month before the next national congress or when an MEC needs a power base to fight an election.

Why does the SECC demand a flat rate rather than payment according to the amount of electricity actually used, which seems a fairer system?
Personally I favour what is called "lifeline block tarrifs" - a basic amount is provided free for both rich and poor, but then the cost increases very steeply according to how much is consumed. Rich people will consume more and therefore pay much more. But people in Soweto feel so strongly about a flat rate that it proved impossible for us to ignore their demand. It stems from the rent and rates boycotts of the 1980s when Eskom introduced a very low flat rate of R33.80 a month which lasted for two or three years. Pensioners and the poor say they can't budget now because their bills fluctuate so much every month. There are many problems with meters, which are rarely calibrated, and often not read. Most bills are estimates. Then when the meters are read and the adjusted bills arrive, householders have a crisis. We have to speak a language that will connect to the people, otherwise we can't make them aware of other possibilities. I see the flat rate as a step on the road to a better system.