The broad smile – coupled with a twinkle in her eyes that flashes when asked about the electrification of her village and three neighbouring ones – could power the whole of Limpopo. Sitting in her lounge in Mapareng outside Burgersfort, a small town to the southeast of Limpopo – Martha Shai’s joy is palpable. It’s just after 8pm and her grandchildren are watching a local soapie on TV in the adjoining room.
Until Operation Mabone – which saw nearly 400 households electrified at Mapareng last year (and a thousand more in three other villages in the Greater Tubatse municipality) – the septuagenarian and her family could only keep abreast with the outside world by listening to the radio.
Notwithstanding some of the stop-start activity that marred the operation, the big switch-on happened on December 27.
That day is etched in Shai’s memory. Words tumble out of, seemingly, her heart, when she recalls how it felt to flick on the light for the first time, or to switch on a stove in her home. She pays tribute to Pretoria-based engineering firm Mphaphuli Consulting and the state’s power utility, Eskom, for making villagers’ lives easier. “I’m overjoyed beyond words.” The phrase punctuates her every other paragraph. On the other side of the district, in Leboeng, the fasttalking Sarah Malepe, a villager and member of a Greater Tubatse Ward 1 committee, sees things in the same light.
“Words can’t express what’s inside [my heart],” she says, relaxing on her stoep. As a ward committee member, she was among the people who secured the community’s buy-in and discussed the electrification project with local traditional leaders under Kgoshigadi (female chief) Dinkwenyane, who needed no convincing.
In addition to Mapareng and Leboeng, the largest of Greater Tubatse’s villages to be electrified through Operation Mabone, the neighbouring communities of Makotaseng and Phiring also benefited from the project. Overall, more than 1 400 homes – with Leboeng claiming half the total – were connected to the grid.
Shai, who lives with and supports her six grandchildren on her state pension, says she still can’t believe her home has been electrified in her lifetime.
Her grandchildren, Bridget and Oupa Mashiloane, speak of numerous benefits. For one, the household – which cannot afford a generator or gas stove – used to rely on wood for cooking, ironing and other chores. Bridget says that meant setting aside about two hours a few days every week to fetch wood. Not only was the chore potentially dangerous (there are snakes in the area), it was taxing for schoolgoing children, who, instead of studying, had to venture into the forest to collect wood.
Worse, ironing took two or three times longer.
SM Makwala – a teacher at Leboeng’s Tshabelang Dinoko Secondary (a school with 550 pupils) – cites unending fatigue as one of the biggest problems that have been eased by bringing electricity to the village. He teaches three subjects from grades 9 to 12.
“Kids need lights to study, to do homework and so on – to get good grades, which will make them competitive out there. Without electricity, they spend quite a bit of time fetching wood – and there is the stumbling block. Even if they don’t fetch wood, they still rely on candles. This is a poor community. Some families find candles expensive – so kids end up going to bed instead of studying because their parents can’t afford candles,” he says. “It’s a struggle.”
Makwala also singles out the benefits of the internet and TV on the lives of young people.
“These are important in the development of children. With electricity, they’ll now be able to do research on the internet, pursue opportunities, such as bursaries and learnerships, look for jobs or come up with exciting ideas,” he says.
“Technology and electricity work hand in glove. Access to TV also suddenly opens doors that were closed to our learners. Being exposed to such sources of information and knowledge will help them a long way. It will motivate them to dream!” Oupa, Shai’s grandson, agrees. “Electrification brought us from darkness to light. We’re living in a world we knew existed, but only dreamt of,” he says, adding that it has opened the door for entrepreneurship with the help of computers.
The entrepreneurship or job-opportunity theme, along with a focus on education, is pervasive in rural Greater Tubatse (home to around 350 000 people), with even the kgoshigadi and the equally supportive Frans Motubatse, a headman, singing the same tune.
Until Operation Mabone, Shai’s grandchildren and their peers, in households where there was not much money to spend on candles, would go to their schools to study at night.
But Shai’s home is a 20-30 minute walk to the nearest school. It can take more than an hour from other households. It’s not a conducive environment. Following the end of apartheid in the 1990s, rural schools, including Tshabelang Dinoko, were electrified to help them close the gap with their urban peers.
Makwala says electricity has the potential to reduce poverty levels considerably, but adds that it will take time.
“Light has brought change in this community. Hopes are higher. It’s up to our children to make it,” the teacher says.
“They shouldn’t take this development for granted, but use it to effect change and reduce poverty and unemployment.”
He says more than two-thirds of people in this community, where child-headed households are not uncommon, rely on social grants while others depend on otherwise low-paying farm jobs to eke out a living.
Burgersfort, an hour’s drive from here, is an important source of remittances, but even these are limited.
Further afield, Jane Furse and Roossenekal – where Evraz Highveld Steel and Vanadium owns Mapochs Mine – are other sources. Villagers in settlements such as Leboeng rely on a mix of low employment, grants and low pay.
“Some kids come to school in civvies because their parents can’t afford to buy them uniforms. People are struggling to make ends meet here,” adds Makwala.
Back in the grandmother’s home, when asked about affordability, Shai says her budget for electricity is R150 a month. That it’s prepaid electricity might make things easier by way of fee collections on the part of Eskom or related entities.
On the other hand, for someone whose alreadystretched old age grant is not even R1 500, the expense is steep.
However, Shai is quick to argue that the benefits outweigh the costs by far. She notes many savings, because she doesn’t have to spend R2 each time she has her phone recharged at a nearby spaza shop and she can save a small fortune by not having to buy candles. The convenience and safety factors that come with electrification are also big pluses.
“When you use candles or a primus stove, you always live in fear because the house can catch fire at any time. If you have to leave children at home for a few days, you get restless, worrying about what might happen,” says the pensioner, who jokingly adds that criminals (not much of a nuisance here in any case) have been put on the back foot. “Electricity is bringing us safety in many ways.” Years ago, a household was razed to ashes just two streets from fellow villager Malepe’s home because of a candle. Unlike the Shais – who used to rely on a wood fire outdoors before switching to a hot-plate stove donated by Mphaphuli Consulting last month – Malepe could afford a gas stove. The problem was that it dented her pocket – setting her back some R250 per month. “And that was just for cooking.” With the advent of community electrification, her bill has fallen to just R150 per month.
“That is for lights, the TV, fridge and cooking on the stove,” she says. To her, the cost-effectiveness and convenience are a compelling proposition. The handful of villagers, pegged at “fewer than 1%” who own generators used to spend about R300 just to power their TV sets every month.
By all accounts, Operation Mabone is nothing short of life-changing for thousands of local villagers.
All the same, not everyone can take advantage of community electrification because of the dire poverty that still defines the area.
In Leboeng, Mapareng and other villages, a handful of boys and girls – some as young as 10 – can still be seen pushing wheelbarrows laden with wood in the blazing Limpopo sun. Their bundles will probably last a few days before they’ll have to make their next visit to the forest.
Looking on, Frans Masuku, a Leboeng resident and community liaison officer at Mphaphuli Consulting, bemoans the sense of destitution.
He notes the difference community electrification has made in his back yard, but he still feels for those stuck in abject poverty, who are not able to benefit from the project. He says that the commonplace sight of scores of people pushing wood-laden wheelbarrows across villages will hopefully soon be a distant memory thanks to Operation Mabone and other projects like it.
Teacher Makwala notes that the matric pass rate at his school barely exceeded 50% before electrification. The numbers picked up soon after the lights started flickering on in the area. “With motivation comes good results,” he says. The pass rate has now breached the 90% mark, he adds, singling out for special mention former pupil Mapule Mothomo, who aced matric and went on to study medicine in Cuba.
The school is yet to consider all the new options available to it thanks to electrification, such as electronic communication with parents, but it plans to capitalise on the development in every way it can.
“Now that our kids have power at home, I’m positive we’ll attain 100%,” says Makwala.
“What’s more, our kids will discover new careers and their horizons will broaden in all respects.”
Lufuno Mphaphuli (right), CEO of Mphaphuli Consulting,
firm responsible for rolling out the electricity network in the Greater
Tubatse municipality in Limpopo,
shows a programme beneficiary how to use