Electricity and access to it is a big issue in Zimbabwe at the moment. Not least by admission of our own government but more importantly by the lived realities of many urban based Zimbabweans, civil service workers, social service providers, informal traders and formal or informal private business owners. I have mentioned ‘urban’ Zimbabweans because that is where the medium and commodity that is electricity is most used, most craved and because of low connectivity to the national power grid in rural areas, most needed.
So understandably emotive urban conversations about power cuts are focused on determining (as with every other problem the country has) what the cause of the heavy load shedding is. The reasons range from allegations of corruption about alternative energy supply tenders (Wicknell Chivayo and cohorts), connected politicians and actors’ inability to pay humongous energy bills, the shortage of water in Kariba, inefficiency at the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) and most significantly, the inability or refusal of consumers to pay for electricity.
The cabinet minister responsible for the supply of electricity, Fortune Chasi, has already indicated that he is of the firm persuasion that people must pay their debts toZESA.
In other relatively privileged conversations, not so influential persons have strongly recommended in tandem with the intentions of government that electricity tariffs will eventually have to increase for domestic household and commercial users.
Some informal elitist opinion would immediately point to the possibility that those who can pay should be able to do so as long the commodity is available. In fact, one of the elitist jokes doing the rounds is that ‘it is no longer pragmatic to pay a Multi Choice digital satellite television monthly subscription if there’s no electricity?’ Or alternatively, it is better to pay in order to get the commodity that is electricity to be available to you personally. Never mind those that cannot afford because for our elites, it would be assumed to be better if they were off the grid altogether!
With an ever expanding urban population, electricity supply was always going to be a major problem for Zimbabwe. And not only just because of the demographics but also the changing use and need for electricity. New(ish) gadgets such as the ubiquitous (smart) mobile phone, laptop, smart television, digital decoders, wireless network routers, the need for internet access and rechargeable audio speakers, everyday electricity use was always going to rise spectacularly.
These examples of electric gadgets are not just for the sake of tech-savvy perceptions of the same. They are reflective of a changing Zimbabwean (urban and peri-urban) lifestyles. Even if one cannot really afford some of the gadgets, the intention is to own or share one laptop, mobile money phone and (bar-stool) football match motivated satellite TV decoder.
For mobile telecommunications companies (MTCs) power cuts as evidenced by a recent glitch in connectivity for Zimbabwe’s largest one, Econet, the electricity shutdowns also have as serious dent on profit and reputation. Even though the most affected by the latter is the small to medium enterprise that relies heavily for example, on mobile phone money transactions. So where there’s no readily accessible electric power, there is basically no individual happiness of access to social media but more importantly limitations to accessing private profit (with some sort of state tax) on the basis of a keen desire by many Zimbabweans to be ‘online’.
Or in the case of political activists of any hue, there is potentially no capacity to mobilise via social media for assumedly urgent political causes. A development that would no doubt be welcome to either the ministry of home affairs, the police and domestic or other ‘intelligence’ agencies. The key issue in this instance is that whereas in the last year we have had internet shutdowns, we now have electricity shutdowns. A situation in which the primary source of the medium (electricity) being the message is not just its content (social media) but its mechanism (again, electricity).
What the last month of these severe power shortages in Zimbabwe also indicate is that electricity is not just an anticipated ‘medium’ or ‘commodity’ that enables a ‘normal’ literally powered (urban) existence but that it is now highly personal. Almost to be popularly considered a private right more important than a number of others that would be less immediate or linked to technological or ‘modern’ aspects of our everyday lives. Hence the scramble for options such as domestic solar energy, electric invertors and gas stoves, if you can afford any or all of the above. Or alternatively to ask the ‘urbane’ question, if you don’t have electricity and what it allows you to access, what else can you have?
And there’s the rub. The Zimbabwean government has embarked on a default privatization of access to electricity that most of us do not see out of desperation for the commodity. By the same default, they have come to control what we can access on social media and mobilise for when our mobile phone batteries are flat or the MTCs have run out of petroleum gas or solar power fuel to keep their base stations operational.
Even if we are sometimes in the right loop about solar energy and mitigating climate change, which factually we, in the global south and in Zimbabwe have contributed an almost negligible amount to be accused of having significantly caused by way of our economic or social activities.
So our electricity crisis puts us as Zimbabweans at a difficult standpoint. None of us in urban or rural areas want to miss out on the ‘bright lights’ but we may miss out on how the same was used to help determine our expectations of what it is to live among the ‘enlightened’. With a fully charged mobile phone battery, a private hospital that’s got a backup system for electric power and a landlord with an inverter. We will suffer and we will hopefully continue.
By the time our local minister of energy gets to a relative comfort zone of declaring a normalcy of supply of domestic and industrial electrical energy, we will still have to first ask ourselves the questions of how do we charge our mobile phones, exchange mobile money or watch television and have lighting in our domestic functions if we do not have money. Hence in some circles the debate is ‘if you cannot pay, you do not get.’ The latter being a casual turn of phrase that is for the few, not the many, despite our expanding urban demographic.