Electricity cuts, lifestyles and modified behaviour in Zimbabwe

Guest Column Takura Zhangazha

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 with regards to energy supply tenders (Wicknell Chivayo and cohorts), connected
politicians and consumers’ inability to pay the huge energy bills, shortage of water in Kariba Dam, inefficiency at the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority
(Zesa) Holdings.

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 to Zesa Holdings. In other relatively privileged conversations, not so influential persons have strongly recommended, in tandem with the intentions
of government, that electricity tariffs should 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 MultiChoice 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, 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 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 telecommunication companies (MTCs) power cuts, as evidenced by a recent glitch in connectivity for Zimbabwe’s Econet, electricity shutdowns also
have a 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.

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 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. This has resulted in the scramble for options such as domestic solar energy, electric inverters and gas stoves, if one 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 privatisation of access to electricity that most of us do not see out of desperation
for the commodity.

By the same default, they have also 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.

So, our electricity crisis puts us as Zimbabweans at a difficult standpoint. None of us in urban or rural areas wants 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’.

By the time the Energy minister 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 how we are going to 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.

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