Thursday, April 24, 2008

Loading sheds, shedding loads

Apologies for the long silence. I have been on holiday in South Africa for a little over 3 weeks and decided to take the unplugged approach (for the most part). Apart from anything else, the connection speeds available to me were laughable.

I thought I'd share some of my observations about the changes in South Africa for my first post back in the saddle. Before I do, however, let me say categorically that I had the most wonderful time. That, in spite of the fact that we have no plans to return, I felt that my pulse beat in time to the rhythm of the people and the place in a way it spectacularly fails to do in the UK. I hooked up with family and friends and it was as if we had never been apart. The sun shone, the sky was blue and I felt truly alive.

That said: life is harder than it was when we left 9 years ago and when we last visited five and a half years ago. Things are wa-ay more expensive. Crime is up. Unemployment is up. Security measures on houses are even more extreme.

Much of this was largely to be expected, based on what we had learned from the news. However, there were a few surprises.

Several years ago, the national electricity supplier, Eskom, was set to be privatised. It was known at the time that the infrastructure would soon become inadequate, but the matter was not addressed, because the expectation was that this would be dealt with by the incoming powers that be. This privatisation never happened. Moreover, many of those who knew what needed to be done joined the braindrain and are now probably in the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

What did happen was that power was laid on for far flung rural areas - something which had been promised for many a year, but for which the existing infrastructure was inadequate. What also happened was that the informal settlements (locally known as squatter camps) figured out how to obtain... ahem... "informal electricity" by running wires directly from the overhead mains cables (and people developed ingenious ways of stealing underground cables to melt down and sell the copper).

As a consequence, Eskom can no longer supply the country with uninterrupted power. A system of loadshedding has been introduced. In East London, where my family lives, the power is shut off every second day for two hours. In Cape Town it is one 3-hour period during the week. Some of the larger stores and/or shopping centres have generators, but many do not, so many cannot operate effectively during these periods. Loadshedding is conducted on a rolling basis across an area, so you might madly set about making up for lost time as soon as your power comes back up, only to discover that your client/supplier is now experiencing their scheduled power outage.

How this country is going to host the 2010 soccer world cup, I have no idea!

Of course, since the loadshedding is a scheduled business, any criminal with half a brain has figured out that all the sophisticated security equipment is disabled during loadshedding. This allows them a neat and predictable 2 hour window to focus their attention on houses where the electrified fences are now not electrified, the burglar alarm is disabled and the armed response units are not going to get to know about the robbery until the burglars are long gone.

Recycling and the environment
When we moved to the UK 9 years ago, we were appalled at how little recycling took place here, compared to the provision in South Africa. Nine years later, the UK has stepped up its provision immeasurably, while South Africa has withdrawn much of theirs. It broke my heart to have to throw aluminium cans and PET bottles into the rubbish bin while we were there.

Mind you, there are other ways of recycling!

Poverty being what it is, there are large numbers of what my mother calls "bin diggers" who go through the garbage bags waiting for collection, looking for items that can be recycled. Aluminium cans are transformed into ornaments, toys and fashion accessories. PET bottles are used as gardening implements. Plastic shopping bags are torn into strips and woven or crocheted into rugs and hats. My parents keep their vegetable waste for the compost heap, but potato peels apparently attract spider mites, so these go into the trash. I was roundly chastised, however, for scraping them straight off the board into the bin. They have to be put into a plastic shopping bag which is tied at the top, so that the bin diggers don't get their hands all mucky.

On garbage collection day, you can spot vast armies of women sitting under trees surrounded by bags filled with the spoils of the day's foraging. In due course, they will be collected, but they're not letting those bags out of their sight until then! Driving along the roads, you would expect to see the impact of their foraging, in the form of some sort of mess or litter. You would be wrong. These women are very careful to replace everything they don't want in the black garbage bags and then tie them closed, leaving them neatly at the end of each driveway as the refuse collectors would expect.

Sadly, this resourcefulness can do nothing to rescue the wetlands that are being drained to build developments which the infrastructure cannot possibly support. Nor can it prevent the wholesale flattening of trees for the same purpose. The environmental organisations are powerless in the face of the bribery of officials to approve this, that and the other new development and corruption of this nature looks set to rob the country of the natural beauty that brings in the vital tourist dollars, pounds and euros (related side issue: my sister-in-law has been sponsoring a group of homeless, bushdwelling children for several years. She has made several attempts to get them identity documents so that they can apply for legitimate work, but the officials have made it abundantly clear that they will only consider the applications in exchange for a hefty bribe which she is neither able to afford or countenance).

Making a difference
Need in South Africa means something very different from need in the UK. Needy children there are likely to live in a home with no indoor plumbing or electricity. They may share a single-roomed dwelling with 6 or 7 others. They may well be physically and sexually abused. They are likely to have TB and/or be HIV positive. The food they receive at school is all the food they get. Small actions can make a fundamental difference. Which is why I am so proud of my many friends who are involved up to their eyeballs in this project (the woman in the blue top in the photo to the right of the logo on the home page is my best friend, Lynda from whom I parted with bitter tears on Monday).

The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling will stop or in what place my touch will be felt.

Karin Colson

This has been a long post. If you've made it this far, thanks for sticking with me!


Rina Tripathi said...

I am touched to the core of my heart Karyn. The part where your mother tells you to put potato peels in a seperate bag, its so wonderful to care for another human. I am really amazed. This brought tears as today I read in news paper a 12 year-old girl was raped by a cop. Don't know how to react to that I prayed to God and felt bitter anger at the incident. The child was waiting outside a temple for the family to return. All this is making me think that soon I will have to join a place here I can be pro active in being of some help to the poor. I admire you and I read each word you wrote, blessings and thanks for sharing these words.

Anonymous said...

Rina: what a tragic story, and sadly one that is all too common in South Africa, too. A friend of mine teaches Sunday School to 2-3 year olds in an informal housing settlement. Almost every child in her class has been sexually abused, thanks to the input of many sangomas who let it be known that a man should sleep with a virgin to be cured of AIDS!

Rina Tripathi said...

I feel sick Karyn today I read similar things. I read as I have a young daughter, to be aware. A four year old raped a nine year old raped and dumped in a sewer. God what is this I do not know how to react. Are we humans or beasts. I feel impotent rage towards the person who suggests the cure you have mentioned. What kind of punishment would deter such devils and why are such humans being born on Earth?