As we wrap up Human Rights Month and its activities promoting respect for fundamental human rights and restoring human dignity in line with the Bill of Rights, the sad reality is that our government is violating those very same rights every time there is load shedding.
Human Rights Day urges South African citizens to remember the struggles and sacrifices made for democracy and the protection of human rights in the country. It commemorates the tragic events of March 21, 1960, when 69 peaceful protesters of pass laws were killed and 180 wounded by police in the Sharpeville Massacre. Yet, human rights violations against the most vulnerable and marginalised can still be seen at every turn.
The right to electricity, albeit not expressed in the Constitution, is a condition for the exercise of other rights, including access to adequate housing, water and healthcare. Moreover, it is crucial to the right to human dignity, which is the basis for the enjoyment of most constitutional rights.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to envisage how in the modern era one could live a dignified life without access to electricity. Many aspects of contemporary life depend on access to electricity, whose availability facilitates clean and efficient energy and access to the internet by powering electronic devices. Not unexpectedly, last week the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and others took legal action to demand an end to load shedding and that critical sites such as public schools, public health institutions and police stations be exempted from power cuts or given alternative energy supplies.
Access to the internet, for example, enhances the enjoyment of the right to education. Ongoing load shedding and power cuts in the country have taken away the full enjoyment of this right. They present a myriad challenge that are disruptive to teaching and learning because not all schools have alternative electricity generation capacity. These challenges include students arriving late, because it is not safe to walk to their transport when there is load shedding where they live.
The power cuts have left classrooms dark, with students having to shift to venues with enough natural light. Teachers and facilitators cannot use overhead projection or eLearning tools during certain times, and streamed lessons to some schools have had to be cancelled as they have no power to receive them.
Additionally, the right to adequate housing goes in tandem with the right to access to clean drinking water and ablution facilities, whose functioning depends on the availability of running water. Water is put through many processes to be safe for consumption after abstraction from a river or a dam, and most processes are done electronically. When the power goes off, it means that processing plants cease to operate. This worsens the situation of water supply, especially where municipalities are already battling to supply water full-time to their communities.
In hospitals, access to electricity is necessary for medical procedures that fulfil the right to access to healthcare, but healthcare workers have been taking strain from load shedding and rolling power blackouts. Complications range from non-functioning life support machines to essential medications going bad and power surges causing expensive equipment to blow.
To conclude, the negative impact of load shedding on the lives of the most vulnerable is massive. People with disabilities, older people and those on lower incomes are facing additional pressures due to the power cuts. People with limited mobility are struggling to leave their homes, while some residents have set up emergency packs in elevators that include chairs, water and food, in case someone is trapped during a blackout.
Our government has been of the view that the right to electricity is not specifically included in the Constitution. Perhaps the Constitution must be interpreted to suit the circumstances of the day. The fulfilment of human rights requires a constitutional interpretation that implies a right to electricity.
This article was originally published by the Cape Times, Pretoria News and the Mercury