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Access to energy for all in South Africa and the anthropologist's responsibility of care

Title data

Jahn, Eileen:
Access to energy for all in South Africa and the anthropologist's responsibility of care.
Event: Responsibility: Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK's 2021 conference (Panel: Who speaks for Energy? Responsibility and authority in the ethnographies of energy in an era of anthropogenic climate change II) , 29.03.-02.04.2021 , University of St Andrews (online).
(Conference item: Conference , Speech )

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Abstract in another language

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.

Further data

Item Type: Conference item (Speech)
Refereed: No
Keywords: electricity networks; dehistorization; responsibility
Institutions of the University: Faculties > Faculty of Cultural Studies > Chair Epistomologies of the global South > Chair Epistomologies of the global South - Univ.-Prof. Dr. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni
Result of work at the UBT: Yes
DDC Subjects: 300 Social sciences
Date Deposited: 07 Apr 2021 10:09
Last Modified: 07 Apr 2021 10:09
URI: https://eref.uni-bayreuth.de/id/eprint/64590