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Informal settlements embrace solar, showing the way for all Africa

Using the famous Gautrain of Gauteng as my preferred means of transport to OR Tambo international airport in Johannesburg, provided me with a glimpse of what used to be miles and miles of squatter camps on the north western fringes of the mighty metropolis.
Leaving Gauteng’s hustle and bustle to return to my sedate semi-rural existence in the metro-village of Windhoek, is always a reason to be joyful. Big city life is not my cup of tea.
It must have been twenty years since I last ventured through Thembisa, the third largest concentration of residents in Gauteng after Soweto and the Katlhehong Vosloorus townships. The Gautrain line runs just west of the farthest parts of Thembisa.
A visit to Johannesburg remains a mind-boggling experience. Measured from Pretoria’s northern townships to Johannesburg and beyond to the industrial complex of Vereeniging and Vanderbijl Park, this is a metropolis of more than 100 kilometres across. It displays all the elements of urban growth in a third world country encompassing unbelievable opulence not too far removed from the squalor of the informal settlements. Thembisa used to be just such a dejected and rejected area.

I have never come across any person, analyst or layman, who could tell me exactly how many people live in Gauteng. Estimates range from 7 million to well over 12 million. Even the voters’ roll does not provide an accurate indication as there are an estimated two million foreigners in Gauteng and young people under the voting age are not counted. All the population figures I have seen are based on estimates and extrapolations of known population samples. I think it suffices to say it is very big, densely populated, overcrowded, and a nightmare for local authorities.
But seeing that part of Thembisa from the Gautrain angle, impressed some other realities on my mind and I believe these are far more important from an analytical point of view, than the immediate chaos that confronts the senses.
The part of Thembisa I traversed can no longer be classified as an informal settlement despite the fact that its roots are still clearly visible. Today, the houses are built of brick but the streets still show the same zigzag pattern of an informal settlement process. Overhead are tangled webs of powerlines, indicating these “suburbs” are connected to the main grid. Yet I am not convinced that pre-paid is the most important source of energy.
The most outstanding aspect that immediately drew my attention is the ubiquitous presence of solar geysers. As far as the eye could see, over hills and up to the horizon, every single dwelling has a solar water heater on the roof. This is truly an amazing observation to experience first hand.
That section of the Gautrain where it passes Thembisa is not that long, at the most some 10 kilometres, and given the speed of this bullet, it is not always easy to take in close-up detail. But looking slightly further afield, it is obvious that the preference for solar must cover tens of kilometres. Again, displaying the informal roots, it does not appear as if there was any preconceived plan or structure. The solar water heaters sit randomly on all sorts of roof structures, pointing in every direction. This was not a planned installation with all the panels facing north, instead the array of solar installations looks rather chaotic, facing this way and that.
From this I deduced that each family must have installed their own geyser independent of any other family. There is absolutely no evidence of a coordinated installation programme, yet all the thousands of solar heaters are there, very much in the open and very visible for anybody whose interest lies in development science and in the process by which a squatter camp slowly evolves into a suburb.
What this tells me is that alternative energy will become the norm in future. Despite the presence of the main grid, I believe more and more families will go the solar route, bearing the costs out of their own pockets. It is also a possible roadmap for us and the way solar energy will develop irrespective of larger, official projects.
If I consider the general wisdom that hot water can take up as much as 60% of a household’s energy expenses, then this chaotic, uncoordinated urban sprawl is an indication that home owners will not wait indefinitely for on-grid installations. The technology is available, becoming cheaper by the day.
It will be interesting to see in another twenty years, how much bigger solar had become. And when DC panels become affordable for the average household, I believe we shall see an energy transformation that has nothing to do with official policy. People are simply going to shift their need for a utility to themselves. I saw it this week.

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