South Africa plunged into darkness during the load shedding power crisis

KHAYELITSHA, South Africa – It has become a fact of life in South Africa, as predictable as the rising sun. Every day, it seems, the power goes out.

Sometimes it only happens once a day, for two hours. On other days, power outages can last eight hours or longer, crippling economic activity and disrupting life in this nation of 60 million, which is still struggling to get back on its feet because of the pandemic.

Power outage alerts are often displayed on mobile phones and people try to plan their days and nights around the power outages in their area.

The affluent minority here have backup power systems at home to keep the lights on and the wifi and fridge working, but no one is immune. Traffic lights don’t work, causing traffic jams at major intersections. Gas stations and shops cannot process electronic transactions and ATMs cannot work.

For the poor majority in this deeply unequal society, it is an ever-worsening nightmare. Families in townships and informal settlements, already grappling with high unemployment and rising inflation, struggle to prepare meals at night while children do their homework in the dark.

“We are all struggling,” said Xolelwa Maha, a community leader in the PJS informal settlement in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township. “When I go home there is no electricity and I can’t cook until it comes on again. Sometimes it’s too late and the kids went to bed for days without a proper meal.”

South Africa has used load shedding or rolling blackouts to conserve electricity since 2008, but the current outages are the worst on record. In April alone, 1,054 gigawatt hours of electricity were shut off across the country, compared to 2,521 gigawatt hours for all of 2021, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.

The government has attributed the additional blackouts to a recent wildcat strike by workers at state utility Eskom, but the problems with South Africa’s power grid run much deeper – rooted in an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants and lack of maintenance, corruption, theft and vandalism. The strike has been settled, but financially strapped Eskom has warned it could take weeks to clear a backlog of repair work at the power plants while the system could face more outages.

In Cape Town, the water supply cannot be maintained in some areas due to pump failures not being able to fill the reservoirs that supply the region. “Heavy machinery like water pumps, sewage pumping stations, power transformers and substations just aren’t made to endure this kind of abuse,” the city warned in a statement this week. “The constant switching on and off causes dozens of localized trips.”

Energy expert Chris Yelland said the constant blackouts are a national emergency and could become a national disaster.

“In the worst case, a partial or nationwide blackout with all its consequences, including social unrest, is possible,” said Yelland. “The government and Eskom have had more than a decade to discuss and address the challenges, but the hard statistics show the situation is not improving.”

Busisiwe Mavuso, chief executive of Business Leadership South Africa, called for diversification of power sources as the nation can no longer rely on Eskom.

“I’ve heard of companies being forced to lay off employees simply because they couldn’t open their doors,” Mavuso wrote in her weekly newsletter. “Those with generators couldn’t get diesel fueled fast enough. Those who had batteries found them dead.” The situation was exacerbated by record gas prices, which have risen 36 percent in South Africa this year, in part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Greg Bing, owner of AP Jones, a family clothing store in Cape Town’s southern suburb of Fish Hoek, said years of power outages have had a “huge impact” on the business.

“Once the worst of Covid was over, we waited for the euphoria, but now we have to deal with this hole,” Bing said. “We can’t seem to get out of the swamp.”

Bing bought a generator to keep the store lights on and batteries to power cash registers and credit card machines. “The problem is that as the frequency of load shedding increases, the batteries don’t have time to charge properly and the phones don’t work,” he said.

Down the road in Fish Hoek, Shiji John, owner of Indian restaurant Bhandaris, said people were too scared to go out at night during the power outages. “Nobody comes out in the dark,” John said. “I don’t know how we can continue a business like this.”

Even in such challenging times there are small success stories.

Business at Mohammed Hussein’s corner shop in the PJS informal settlement in Khayelitsha has been doing well thanks to a project funded by a Swiss research university, ETH Zurich, to install small solar lights on 750 houses in the area.

While neighboring streets are plunged into darkness during load shedding, the area in front of his shop is still lit up, drawing people from all over the world looking for a late-night snack.

“People come from the neighboring areas because there is light,” Hussein said. South Africa plunged into darkness during the load shedding power crisis

Dustin Huang

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