Women and Renewable Energy in a South African Community: Exploring Energy Poverty and Environmental Racism

By Fakier, Khayaat | Journal of International Women's Studies, May 15, 2018 | Go to article overview

Women and Renewable Energy in a South African Community: Exploring Energy Poverty and Environmental Racism


Fakier, Khayaat, Journal of International Women's Studies


Introduction

South Africa is the 14th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and has embarked on a process of reducing its impact on the environment by expanding the green economy--that is, creating more jobs by producing environmentally friendly products and, simultaneously, encouraging the consumption of such products by businesses, citizens and consumers (Borel-Saladin and Turok, 2013). Cock (2014, 223), however cautions against seeing the green economy as the solution to South Africa's environmental ills and argues that any initiative to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels should "meet the needs of the majority rather than the profit of a few". Thus, initiatives such as fitting solar powered heaters and geysers, in compliance with new building codes should include "community participation and control" (ibid: 224).

This article looks at the installation, and, more specifically, the use of Solar Water Heaters (SWHs) in a township called, Lwandle, in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. It focuses on women in Lwandle, specifically, who as care givers and providers of domestic labour, are primarily responsible for the maintenance and renewal of households. Domestic labour, as it involves cleaning, cooking and caring for others, relies fundamentally on energy. Inadequate access to energy in poor households makes women's tasks more difficult and strains already stretched budgets to breaking point. The installation of SWHs in Lwandle in the 1990s, it is argued, was an outcome of community consultation (Du Toit 2010; SEA 2009 and SouthSouthNorth Africa 2008) in a township populated by a "responsive and responsible citizenry" (Murray and Witz 2013: 58).

This paper argues that the rights of women to be included in decisions about energy use and their experiences with energy use are ignored. Using an eco-feminist perspective, which argues that there are strong "connections between the unequal status of women and the life-threatening destruction of the environment" (Sturgeon 1997:28) this article explores how the rhetoric of 'renewable energy for the poor' which bypasses women's voices on domestic uses of renewable energy result in reverse outcomes of pro-environmental policy for the poor as well as for society in general.

Energy Poverty, Environmental Racism and Eco-Feminism

Energy poverty, commonly refers to "a lack of access to adequate, reliable, affordable and clean energy carriers and technologies for meeting energy service needs for cooking and those activities enabled by electricity to support economic and human development" (Pauchari and Rao 2013: 205). Those who experience energy poverty also experience inadequate access to public services, water and sanitation and commonly live in economically depressed communities. African women in communities such as those in South Africa, do not only shoulder a disproportionate burden to care for their households and communities (Fakier and Cock 2009), but also face gender-, class-, and race-based exclusion from decision-making and control over access to and the use of public resources (Kehler 2001). The gendered and racialized conditions of 'poor environments' in African townships has its origins in the environmental racism of our apartheid past (Ruiters 2001) This pattern of environmental racism continues despite our Bill of Rights proclaiming the right of all "to live in an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing" (Section 24 of the Bill of Rights). Many African South Africans continue to live on the most damaged land or under-serviced townships, in polluted neighbourhoods adjoining working or old mines, next to coal fired power stations, steel mills, incinerators and waste sites or polluting industries, without adequate services of refuse removal, water, electricity and sanitation (Fakier and Cock 2018).

One of the outcomes of energy poverty is a reliance on unsafe, expensive and ecologically harmful energy sources, such as wood fires or the use of paraffin for heating and cooking and unsafe connections to the national electricity grid. …

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