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Democratising infrastructure? Governing energy democracy in South Africa

When Nov 20, 2020
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Speaker: Dr Jon Phillips

Where material infrastructure is associated with injustice, critical scholarship is often concerned with how infrastructure can be democratised. Yet, the relationship between democracy and infrastructure is underexplored. This paper explores how infrastructure is entwined with democratic participation and rule by analysing distributed electricity generation in South Africa. Decentralised solar power is often assumed to enhance democratic control of energy systems by empowering citizens as owners of infrastructure and material participants in governance. We describe a more complex relationship between infrastructural and democratic change, of who and what are governed by whom, and how. First, we describe changes in South Africa’s model of entrepreneurial urban governance, in how tensions between the social and commercial imperatives of local government are managed through infrastructure and space. Second, we describe the new political subjectivity of the ‘prosumer’ (producer-consumer), shaped by the governmental tools of infrastructural gatekeepers that coordinate grid access and electricity exchange. We find democratic possibilities shaped by the incorporation of new technologies and subjects into existing relations of infrastructure, finance and power. We conclude by considering the prospect of material participation in democratic politics that not only places technology in the hands of businesses and residents but transforms socio-material relations that maintain injustices of infrastructure.