Electrical Energy Poverty in Cape Town, South Africa

by Meg Ryan, Colgate University, 2016

South Africa is a country which has been the site of political, social, and environmental contention resulting from nearly a half a century of being under Apartheid regime. In recent years, South Africa has corrected for many of their political and social disparities; however, a major environmental injustice which still plagues the nation is energy poverty. Energy poverty is the inability for households to provide sufficient energy to their homes for the purposes of heating, cooking, lighting, etc.[1].

Due to the unavailability of electrical energy, much of the Black and Coloured populations  in Cape Town are forced to utilize paraffin and wood as fuel sources which can be dangerous alternatives[2]. The absence of electrical amenities in these townships has greatly exacerbated the low standards of living and has led to the rise of health hazards in an already marginalized population.

Figure 1: Electrical lines and houses in Imizamo Yethu township (Ryan, 2015)



Colonization, Apartheid, & Environmental Racism

  • The colonization of South Africa, both by the Dutch and the British, forced the indigenous black population into slavery, cultural suppression, and segregation.
  • Apartheid was formed under institutionalized racism where the non-white population was divided by ethnic group and assigned to designated ‘homelands,’ which were often resource deficient areas[3].

During these two regimes, the politics, economy, natural resources, and energy systems were entirely controlled by the white population, and it has historically been the case that municipalities and natural resources have been unequally allotted to white populations[4].
Apartheid ended in 1994, though the legacy of environmental racism and poverty still continue today.

Energy Poverty in South Africa

  • At this point in time, about six million households in South Africa remain without electricity and about 43% of the population is considered energy poor[5].


Figure 2: Household populations and electricity availability in South Africa (Sustainable Energy Africa, 2014)

As a consequence, many citizens of South Africa are left without a viable electricity source for lighting, cooking, utilizing appliances, and controlling the temperature of their homes. The alternatives that are most popularly used by low-income families include paraffin and wood biomass[6].

  • Approximately 7 million households rely on these forms of energy and the majority of these families are located close to urban areas in townships[7].

Paraffin Use

Paraffin is particularly popular because it is more readily available, portable, and fairly inexpensive with low investment in infrastructure[8].However, paraffin is dangerous for two reasons:

  1. Users are prone to explosive accidents and burns when using the product[9].
    • The paraffin is sold in used containers, often water bottles or containers which can contain gasoline residue as well as other contaminants[10]. These contaminants can drastically change the chemical composition of the paraffin and result in unpredictable behavior[11].
  2. Other particulates, such as dirt and water, do not have the explosive properties of petrol, but they do have the capacity to “(emit) partially burnt, potentially carcinogenic carbon based compounds”[12].
    • The carcinogenic particles contribute to the respiratory diseases and the effects are exacerbated because these stoves are usually kept indoors, with very little air circulation[13].
Figure 3: Discarding unsafe paraffin stoves in Johannesburg, South Africa (Henderson, 2015)

Wood Burning

Wood burning contributes to indoor air pollution which can contain carbon monoxide, benzene, and other contaminant; these particulates are even more abundant if the wood is only partially combusted [14].
In areas with poor indoor air circulation, this can be especially harmful to health, as it can cause lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory diseases [15].

  • Globally, indoor air pollution from combusting solid biomass contributes to nearly 2 million deaths annually[16].
Figure 4: Cooking  over burning wood in Langa Township located outside of Cape Town (Ryan, 2015)

Insufficient Electricity Infrastructure

The Black and Coloured communities living in impoverished townships are receiving little to no access to Cape Town’s electric grid[17].

  • A majority of the citizens living in informal settlements are forced to siphon their electricity illegally because of the lack of assistance by the government[18].
  • Townships which do have access to electricity “experience limited technical and human resource capacity” which makes it difficult to rely on the energy source[19].

The women and children living in the townships have higher levels of risk as they traditionally spend more time at home and have higher exposure to the paraffin and wood burning hazards[20].

Figure 5: Illegal siphoning off of the electricity grid in Cape Town (Isaacs, 2016)


  • To understand the root causes of Cape Town’s energy impoverishment, we can look to Smith’s theory of uneven development which suggests that inequalities are not simply a byproduct of neglect, but rather that disadvantaged areas are actively produced through factors like colonialism and capitalism[21].

South Africa’s colonial past is a major contributor to the current uneven development, where the marginalized communities continue to lack accessible municipalities such as electricity.


  •  Mohai et al. references disproportionate impact where economic, sociopolitical, and racial factors perpetuate inequalities; it is the issue of race that closely contributes to Cape Town’s issues with energy poverty[22].

Both colonialism and Apartheid were systems which were built upon racist principles, and the consequential inequalities in wealth between white and black populations directly stems from the biased economic practices enforced by the white government. Therefore the black populations are stuck in poverty cycle where they continue to receive a disproportionate amount of the environmental and economic costs.


  • Harrison and Popke discuss the causes and effects of energy poverty and how it stems from a geographical assemblage of networked infrastructures which distribute goods unequally[23].

The lack of established infrastructure to supply the entire city of Cape Town has led to what Harrison and Popke call splintering urbanism where networked infrastructures bypass certain groups[24]. The division of resources between the townships and the wealthier center of the city is a clear example of this phenomenon as well as a clear example of the devaluing of certain identities.


  • Harrison and Popke discuss energy poverty with regard to home materiality, explaining that lower-quality houses often are poorly insulated which increases the amount of fuel needed to heat the home[25]. This inefficiency ends up costing the household more for fuel and perpetuates the energy poverty cycle.

In the townships of Cape Town because many of the homes townships are minimalist shacks made of scrap metal[26]. Therefore, due to the fact that cheap building materials are the least energy efficient, low-wage families will then more readily fall into energy poverty.

Township houses are often poorly insulated, sometimes with no ceilings, and also have poor air circulation with no chimney[27]. The lack of quality air circulation in the houses then provides another threat when alternative fuels such as paraffin and biomass are used.

Figure 6: Poorly insulated home infrastructure in Imizamo Yethu township outside of Cape Town (Ryan, 2015)

What Needs to Change?

Cape Town’s contemporary and historical challenges regarding politics, the economy, the environment, and social networks, all contribute to the perpetuation of energy poverty within the Black and Coloured township communities. In order to lessen the effects of energy poverty in Cape Town, many of these major sources of inequality need to change.

  • The wealth disparity between whites and blacks needs to be bridged so that the effects of poverty and resource deficiency are not disproportionately affecting an already marginalized community.
  • Electrical infrastructure needs to expand to include impoverished areas and supply reliable amounts of energy to the township localities.
  • Safer alternative fuels need to be easily accessible to communities that are not yet connected to the electrical grid; also home materiality needs to increase in quality.

The institutionalized nature of the inequalities in Cape Town makes the issue of energy poverty especially difficult to conquer. However, small scale changes can begin to lessen the impact of electrical energy poverty in these communities.


[1]Harrison, C. and Popke, J. 2011. ‘Because you got to have heat’: The networked assemblage of energy poverty in Eastern North Carolina. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101(4): 949-961

[2]Sustainable Energy Africa. (2014). ‘Tackling Urban Energy Poverty in South Africa’. Accessed 30 March 2016. Available http://www.sustainable.org.za/uploads/files/file72.pdf. 1- 12.

[3]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)

[4]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)

[5]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)

[6]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)

[7]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)

[8]Truran, G. (2009). ‘Household energy poverty and paraffin consumption in South Africa”. Paraffin Safety Association. Accessed 30 March 2016. Available http://www.hedon.info/docs/BP56_Truran.pdf.: 1-6

[9]Truran (2009)

[10]Truran (2009)

[11]Truran (2009)

[12]Truran (2009)

[13]Truran (2009)

[14]Duflo, E., Greenstone, M., Hanna, R. (2010). ‘Cooking stoves, indoor air pollution, and respiratory health in India’. J-PAL. Accessed 30 March 2016. Available https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/cooking-stoves-indoor-air-pollution-and-respiratory-health-india

[15]Duflo (2010)

[16]Duflo (2010)

[17]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)

[18]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)

[19]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)

[20]Duflo (2010)

[21]Smith, N. (2000). Uneven development. In: Johnston, R.J., Gregory, D., Pratt, G., and Watts, M. 2000. The Dictionary of Human Geography, 4th edition. Blackwell Publishers: Oxford, p. 867-869

[22]Mohai, P., Pellow, D., and Roberts, J.T. (2009). Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34: 405-430.

[23]Harrison and Popke (2011)

[24]Harrison and Popke (2011)

[25]Harrison and Popke (2011)

[26]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)

[27]Sustainable Energy Africa (2014)


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