Electricity and the Power of Technological Ambivalence
Imprint: Ohio University Press
176 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 1 black-and-white illustration
- Published: April 2023
- Published: May 2023
- Published: April 2023
A fascinating study that shows how the intersection of technology and politics has shaped South African history since the 1960s.
This book details the development of an interconnected technological system of a coal mine and of the Matimba and Medupi power stations in the Waterberg, a rural region of South Africa near the country’s border with Botswana. South Africa’s state steel manufacturing corporation, Iscor, which has since been privatized, developed a coal mine in the region in the 1970s. This set the stage for the national electricity provider, Eskom, to build coal-fueled power stations in the Waterberg.
Faeeza Ballim follows the development of these technological systems from the late 1960s, a period of heightened repression as the apartheid government attempted to realize its vision of racial segregation, to the deeply fraught construction of the Medupi power station in postapartheid South Africa. The Medupi power station was planned toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century as a measure to alleviate the country’s electricity shortage, but the continued delay of its completion and the escalation of its costs meant that it failed to realize those ambitions while public frustration and electricity outages grew.
By tracing this story, this book highlights the importance of technology to our understanding of South African history. This characterization challenges the idea that the technological state corporations were proxies for the apartheid government and highlights that their activities in the Waterberg did not necessarily accord with the government’s strategic purposes. While a part of the broader national modernization project under apartheid, they also set the stage for worker solidarity and trade union organization in the Waterberg and elsewhere in the country. This book also argues that the state corporations, their technology, and their engineers enjoyed ambivalent relationships with the governments of their time, relationships that can be characterized as both autonomous and immersive. In the era of democracy, while Eskom has been caught up in government corruption—a major scourge to the fortunes of South Africa—it has also retained a degree of organizational autonomy and offered a degree of resistance to those who sought to further corruption.
The examination of the workings of these technological systems, and the state corporations responsible for them, complicates conventional understandings of the transition from the authoritarian rule of apartheid to democratic South Africa, which coincided with the transition from state-led development to neoliberalism. This book is an indispensable case study on the workings of industrial and political power in Africa and beyond.
Chapter 1 The Unlikely Exploitation of the Waterberg
Chapter 2 The Taming of the Waterberg
Chapter 3 Eskom and the Turning of the Tide
Chapter 4 Contested Neoliberalism
Chapter 5 Labor and Belonging in Lephalale
Chapter 6 The Medupi Power Station
A fascinating and timely study of South Africa’s state corporations—in particular its national electricity provider Eskom—and their relationship to the (post)apartheid state. Drawing on meticulous historical research, Ballim powerfully revises existing accounts of state power in South Africa and speaks to urgent questions of energy politics and democratization in the present. — Antina von Schnitzler, author of Democracy's Infrastructure: Techno-Politics and Protest after Apartheid
The inevitable intertwining of power supply, politics and the market has been well explored. Yet in policy debates, one continues to hear calls for the separation of the three parts of the assemblage. Ballim takes up the issue in South Africa and captivatingly shows how calls for disentanglement obscure better insights. — Richard Rottenburg, University of the Witwatersrand
Faeeza Ballim's timely work successfully explains the durability of [electricity utility] Eskom, offers some sense of why the backlash against Eskom (including assassination attempts) is mounting, and offers historians valuable tools for analyzing the relationship between electric power infrastructures and the state. — H-Environment, H-Net Reviews