Reading List: Faeeza Ballim

What does the history of South Africa’s power utility, Eskom, tell us about the apartheid and post-apartheid state?

Image credit Axel Bührmann via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Deed.

My book, Apartheid’s Leviathan: Electricity and the Power of Technological Ambivalence (Ohio University Press, 2023), follows the development of infrastructure projects in an arid, border region of South Africa from the 1970s. Iscor, South Africa’s former steel manufacturing corporation, started a coal mine and Eskom, South Africa’s national electricity provider, built two power stations in the region. Construction on the second power station, named Medupi, began in 2007, and the delay in its completion exacerbated the electricity shortage, the effects of which South Africans first felt in that same year. The country’s electricity shortage only worsened over the years and has reached crisis proportions in the contemporary period.

I was drawn to the study of infrastructure from a discomfort with the conception of African politics as “neopatrimonialism,” which emphasized the systematic dysfunction within African political systems. Thandeka Mkandawire’s critique of the concept, published in 2013, critiqued the embedded assumption that “it is impossible for an African state to play a developmental role.” Preoccupied with the maintenance of their neopatrimonial systems, African governments lacked the long-term vision necessary for the delivery of public goods. While Mkandawire was chiefly concerned with economic policy and economic growth, the question of long-term planning is also applicable to infrastructure development, which is the subject of my book.

A growing body of literature began to look at the new development programs that some African governments adopted from the late 2000s, and that contained a vision of modernization through infrastructure development. Ricardo Soares de Oliveira’s, Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War in particular detailed the limited nature of this modernization under the presidency of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, where infrastructure development was concentrated in elite pockets of Luanda.

In scholarship about South Africa’s economic development, Ben Fine and Zavareh Rustomjee’s influential book, The Political Economy Of South Africa: From Minerals-Energy Complex To Industrialisation, in South Africa, looms large. They demonstrate the historic and continuing dominance of the mines and by extension, the extractive economy, in South Africa’s economy, to the extent that industry failed to develop an autonomous momentum outside of it. Nancy Clark’s book, Manufacturing Apartheid: State Corporations in South Africa, published two years before Fine and Rustomjee’s book, inspired the conceptual context for the state corporations of Iscor and Eskom. This book illuminates the multi-faceted role of the state corporations. They not only provided the auxiliary infrastructure for the mines, but also functioned to improve the socioeconomic mobility of whites, a project that animated the governing rationale of successive South African governments in the 20th century. Iscor and the South African Railways and Harbours were important avenues of employment for whites in the twentieth century.

Over time my conception of “politics” shifted, as did my belief that there is a discernible difference between a realm of “politics” and a realm of “technology.” In my research, I found that even though the leading engineers, government officials, unionists, and workers belonged to different organizations, they were imbricated in unexpected ways and at the different spatial regions of their operation.

Scholars writing in Science and Technology Studies provided the conceptual tools to deal with this complexity. Michel Callon and Bruno Latour’s chapter, “Unscrewing the Big Leviathan,” inside of a collection with a seemingly innocuous title, Advances in Social Theory and Methodology: Toward an Integration of Micro- and Macro-Sociologies, edited by Karin Knorr Cetina, was particularly influential. Importantly, Callon and Latour describe the black-boxing of techniques that go into the creation of “irreversible alliances.”

Gabrielle Hecht’s Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II, considers the construction of nuclear power stations in France after World War II. This book, which focuses on state corporations responsible for nuclear development in France, describes the different “technopolitical regimes” through which their operations passed and decenters the conception of politics from its oft-encountered position within the seat of government. Radiance of France was a helpful starting point for me in understanding the relationship between the monolithic technological state corporations in South Africa and their relationship with the governments of the 20th century.

Finally, Antina von Schnitzler’s Democracy’s Infrastructure: Techno-Politics and Protest after Apartheid, a book centered on the device of the prepaid electricity and water meter in South Africa. This book provides a novel analysis of the way neoliberalism as a form of governmentality filtered into the apartheid reform project in South Africa in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising of 1976. It details South Africa’s political and economic liberalization from the 1990s, as well as the way in which the prepaid meters have functioned as an arena for protest politics in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.