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CityPress - - Voices - SHOKS MNISI MZOLO projects@city­press.co.za

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,

the en­gi­neer­ing

firm re­spon­si­ble for rolling out the elec­tric­ity net­work in the Greater

Tu­batse mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Lim­popo,

shows a pro­gramme ben­e­fi­ciary how to use

elec­tri­cal ap­pli­ances

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