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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Green television

But not green television the way you think. South African blogger 6000 is “not sure where this came from originally or if it’s true”, but he adds: “But you know, this is SA and people are nothing if not resourceful. It’s a cool story – I choose to believe.” Me too.

Spending fever has reached all walks of South African life. Here’s a fellow who lives in a squatter camp beyond Somerset West in Western Cape who now wants a television set – a new one, mind, not that second-hand thing in the pawn-shop window – so he buys one from the High Street furniture retailer.

But he’s back next day, saying the things keeps switching off just at the crucial moment. The shop checks it out and can find nothing wrong, but soon enough he’s back with the same complaint.

This time the shop sends out a technician to pop round to see what the problem is. When the technician gets there, he discovers our guy’s shack draws its electricity from a nearby traffic light, and that the TV only works when the light is green.

Good to know that almost everybody down there can afford to have “spending fever”, even if some prefer to economise on their electricity bills. 6000 has this as a mere scanned image of a newspaper report. I think it deserves the .html treatment.

10 comments to Green television

  • Probably there is no electrical infrastructure providing power directly to the squatter camp even if this chap wanted to buy it, and if there is it is probably expensive and unreliable. The electrical system powering the traffic lights is the one one available nearby that vaguely works, so people use it.

    The best thing that a South African post-apartheid government could have done was to provide people living in townships and squatter camps with the ability to obtain secure property rights over the places that they live, and put process in place that allowed for proper infrastructure to be built to such homes. (“Proper infrastructure” = electricity, water, and proper sanitation, essentially). “Process” means a regime of the rule of law allowing the private sector to build such things. What we have got instead is direct government spending that has very expensively built such infrastructure in a small number of places.

    I am fully aware that this is much easier said than done, but still, the South African government’s efforts have been pretty pathetic. History means that there is little respect for the rule of law, and the complicating factor is that what is now the ruling party discouraged respect for the rule of law (eg by not paying bills and rents) as a way of showing resistance to apartheid. Still, though, decent leadership could have overcome this better than it has.

    Interestingly, though, I do not need to put “telecommunications” in that list of services any more, because pretty much everyone no matter how poor has a mobile phone or at least access to one. In this instance the government did put in place a legal regime to allow the private sector to build mobile phone networks, and (as everywhere else) they covered every populated inch of the country. The interesting trend of the moment is that 3G mobile phone networks can now provide decent fast internet service, so wired isn’t needed for this any more either. This trend has become a big deal in the UK over the last six months. Mobile networks have started providing services where they provide a USB modem for people’s laptops and a reasonable (a lot faster than dialup, but a little slower than most present broadband connections) internet connection using it for £10-£20 a months.

    These plans are selling like hotcakes in the UK, but this sort of thing is actually more advanced in the third world where there are no wired alternatives. Even in Britain where there are wired alternatives the wired broadband providers are starting to feel the pinch as people decide that the 3G service is good enough for them.

  • WalterBoswell

    I believe they call traffic lights ‘robot’s in SA, or so I am told by some banking advert. Funny story all the same.

  • RAB

    I’d love to believe that one ! But…
    Why only on green?
    I’m no electrics expert but surely the power sourse to the traffic light must me constant. The only thing that changes the light to red and amber is an in built timing mechanism. Why should he not to be able to get power on red and amber as well?

  • FlyingPig

    Steady supply of power goes as far as the timing device. Then it is red-yellow-green-neutral and maybe ground or earth. This guy is likely connected to green and neutral.

  • A few years ago a South African friend of mine came to England for the first time to study. After a few weeks in the UK someone asked him for directions, and he gave the answer “Take two blocks that way and then turn left at the robot”. I am told the look he got in return was priceless.

    If the traffic lights are LED based then different colours will use different amounts of power, due to the different energy needs to emit coloured light of different frequency and different efficiencies of the different kinds of LED. If the traffic lights are the old kind with filters over the top of white lights, not so much. But as earlier people said, it depends also on how they wired it.

  • RAB

    Thanks Flying Pig.
    Now I will believe it.

  • Kevin B

    He should have connected to the red. Everyone knows that the red light stays on longer than the green.

  • Hi Brian, thanks for the link. And yes, it deserves html’ing, but I was busy in the lab today!

    Michael J – I’m not sure that I can agree with your damning verdict on the efforts made by the SA government. It’s absolutely true that we have many HUGE issues over here, but nearly all of them can be traced back to the 45+ years of Apartheid. The damage which that caused cannot just be overturned in 14 years.
    The numbers are terrifying. More than one third of Cape Town’s population (and therefore over a million people) lives in one township – Khayelitsha. The population there alone grows by between 5 and 10 thousand people per week, as more migrants mainly from the Eastern Cape come in the hope of finding jobs which actually don’t exist.

    It’s certainly fair to say that the post-Apartheid ANC government could have done better, but they started with virtually nothing and have built literally millions of houses, thousands of schools, hundreds of hospitals. It’s a good start, but it is just that – a start.

    There are many hindering factors: +/- 20% HIV prevalence, MDR and XDR TB, widespread poverty in a country where the majority of whites still live in excellent conidtions, which in turn promotes the high crime rate; there’s a lack of electricity infrastructure, meaning that we regularly experience “load shedding” – a term we’ve come to hate; inflation, unemployment and interest rates are all terrifyingly high.
    And of course, the racism which still dominates society and a media which both feeds upon and taps into the crushing national negativity.

    But there is hope as well. There is a hidden optimism in the people here. Almost a belief that things can’t get any worse. For every widely-reported black voice claimingthey were better off under Apartheid, there are a hundred others who don’t agree. I work regularly within Khayelitsha and the mood there is not one of despondancy. It’s one of buoyancy and belief despite their living conditions. It’s one where they wire up their TVs to the local traffic light. That’s the kind of spirit that keeps me here.

    Sorry – I seem to have gone on a bit, but it’s a subject that’s pretty emotive for me and one where I often find myself sailing into a determined headwind.

  • 6000:

    It’s absolutely true that we have many HUGE issues over here, but nearly all of them can be traced back to the 45+ years of Apartheid. The damage which that caused cannot just be overturned in 14 years.

    I certainly wouldn’t dispute a word of that. The apartheid government was unspeakable and (perhaps worse) utterly incompetent. Actively preventing the majority of your population from becoming skilled and economically productive (which is what apartheid ultimately meant) is just about the stupidist set of government policies that I have ever seen.

    However, put the right (profit and loss) incentives in place, and infrastructure will be built very rapidly and on a large scale with private capital. I don’t see that happening in South Africa to the extent I would like. However fast Khayelitsha is growing, I am sure that shops come into being to sell the people food and companies like SAB and Coca-Cola manage to find a way to provide the population with refrigerated drinks, including somehow installing the necessary electrical infrastructure for this. Where the government is responsible, however, there seems to be a great lag. (Electrical infrastructure and hospitals are harder, but I am not sure they are qualitatively harder).

    When I turn on the radio in South Africa I hear government ministers talking all kinds of statist and socialist claptrap. Historically, I understand the reason for this and it is quite understandable, but it doesn’t ultimately help.

    I am quite optimistic about Africa in general. I see lots of entrepreneurship on the ground, and I think the chances of at least some African countries achieving Asian style economic growth in the next few decades is high. However, South Africa worries me. The rule of law is weak there. (The country’s famously high levels of violence are part of this, of course). This damage was indeed done by the apartheid regime, but if the rule of law has been healing, it has been healing very slowly.

    I assure you though, I find the whole “wiring up a TV to a traffic light” thing as inspiring as you do, and I am delighted that that guy out past Somerset West can afford a new TV. My experiences of the people in South Africa are generally very positive. I have wandered into one or two townships in my time – I visited Khayelitsha in 1999 and it is probably now unrecognisable, and I visited Soweto last year. On those occasions I didn’t encounter anyone who was not warm and welcoming, Unfortunately they are people who are also getting a relatively raw deal in life.

    In a sense though, it pisses me off, too. When the entrepreneurship has to go through informal and likely illegal channels like the electricity from the traffic lights, it largely stays small scale. Small scale businesses remain small because the channels aren’t there to turn them into large businesses. Smart and capable people remain smart and capable on local levels rather than larger ones. When these sorts of things scale, that is when the Asian style economic growth will start to occur.

  • Eric

    Heh. This reminds me of my brother’s trip to one of these resorts in Mexico… Mazatlan, I think. When my brother left the resort he found villiagers living in mud huts, with no flooring, running water, or sanitation. But they had widescreen televisions and satellite dishes with brand-new generators to run it all.