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Accepted Paper:

Access to energy for all in South Africa and the anthropologist’s responsibility of care  
Eileen Jahn (University of Bayreuth)

Paper short abstract:

In my talk I aim to unsettle the consumption-provision binary conventionally informing energy research, since this dichotomisation of actors tends to reproduce hierarchies along colonial and class power structures present in discourses about energy inequalities, poverty and (state) responsibilities.

Paper long abstract:

In April 2019, a larger series of service delivery protests took place across urban areas in South Africa, starting in Alexandra, a Johannesburg township (Nyathi 2019), insisting energy supply be understood as a necessity of life.

While some scholars criticised the media coverage of the protests for encouraging “politically” motivated narratives supposedly incited by political parties as opposed to “genuine” grievances (Friedman 2019), others predicted the recurring protests to soon develop into an organised movement (Ndebele 2013).

Inspired by Ingold (2014) and Abu-Lughod (1991), I argue that from an anthropological perspective both approaches cannot do justice to the complexities of energy supply and its discursive multi-vocality in a South-African post-colonial context. Reading Ingold and Abu-Lughod with and against each other regarding their understanding of the anthropologist’s responsibility, I claim that as ethnographers we have a ‘responsibility to care’. Where agency seemingly appears as absent or rather appropriated by more powerful players in the energy sector (e.g. state actors, energy providers, energy activists, civil society actors or international development initiatives), it is a collaborative, caring ethnographic perspective that can shed light on the protests and non-payment of services as political acts of resistance against inequalities in energy supply.

I thereby aim to unsettle the consumer-provision-binary conventionally informing energy research (e.g. Von Schnitzler 2013, 2008; Ferguson 2007; Ajam 2001; Johnson 1999), since it tends to reproduce hierarchies along colonial and class power structures present in South African discourses about energy inequalities, poverty, and (state) responsibility to provide access to energy for all.

Panel Speak17b
Who speaks for energy? Responsibility and authority in the ethnographies of energy in an era of anthropogenic climate change II
  Session 1 Friday 2 April, 2021, -