Power cuts dent South Africa’s economic reputation

OPINION: South Africa is one of the brightest spots in the African continent but is in serious danger of falling into failed-state status because it cannot manage its energy needs.

Members of The Middle of the Road Band, trumpet player Smiso (L), 24, trumpet player Franqo (C), 28, and euphonium player Pro (R), 30, play Christmas carols in Johannesburg, in the middle of yet another crippling black out, known locally as loadshedding, on December 20, 2022. Scheduled blackouts have burdened the continent's most industrialized country for several years, but got more frequent this year as power utility Eskom imposed many hours of electricity cuts daily. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images)

If you are a middle-class South African, it is easy to forget that you live in the most unequal country on earth — that is, until “loadshedding” came along. 

The technical term for scheduled rolling blackouts brought equality to everyone by cutting electricity to homes and businesses several times a day, for rich and poor alike. It has seriously dented the good life in South Africa and made the middle-class furious with their government. 

Why do we care about electricity blackouts in South Africa? Because South Africa is one of the brightest spots in the African continent but is in serious danger of dropping into failed-state status because it cannot manage its energy needs.

For people of color across the globe, South Africa is a serious contender for the one country they might want to visit or settle in. It’s a majority-Black country with an infrastructure and industrial base that is comparable or superior to many developed countries. 

Add to that the country’s natural beauty and natural resources like gold, diamond and platinum, and you have a seriously attractive country that can be a contender to be one the nicest places to live in the world. 

To arrive at South Africa’s gleaming modern airports, shuttle in luxury sedans on modern highways and be greeted at luxury hotels, visitors may be mistaken to think they’ve arrived in a highly developed country. But the electricity problems belies these impressions as everything grinds to a halt every few hours, creating chaos at traffic lights, homes and businesses across the land. 

After suffering through years of power cuts several times a day, some have resorted to buying inverters and generators to survive. But that’s not an option available to everyone, especially the poor.

The problem with the electricity supply has been brewing for decades in a country that relies on coal for 77 percent of its electricity needs.

But the key to understanding South Africa without falling into easy stereotypes of a “third world” country hitting hard times is by understanding the country was built for 10% of the population under the apartheid system. 

When apartheid was replaced by a democratically elected Black government in 1994, that government was left burdened by enormous debt and an infrastructure that was built to accommodate just 8% of the population that was white.

As the Black middle class grew, basic services such as water, electricity, roads and other essential services that the government had to provide buckled under the new weight.

To compound the problem that became worse every year, the new government led by former freedom fighters was learning to govern on the fly, even as the top leaders of this new government became fabulously rich, including the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, a labor-union-leader-turned-businessman-turned politician, whose net worth is half a billion dollars. 

To further compound the problem, the public utility, Eskom, was used by Ramaphosa’s predecessor to loot the government in what came to be known as “state capture” instead of fixing the electricity shortages everyone saw coming. 

The state-capture scandal at Eskom has had a significant impact on the company and the country, leading to financial losses, operational problems and a decline in investor confidence. It has also resulted in a number of criminal cases and investigations, with several individuals being charged with corruption and other crimes.

The government has implemented loadshedding as a last resort to prevent a complete collapse of the electricity grid.

A group of Morocco supporters react as the power goes out during a blackout while they watch a live broadcast of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Football semi-final match between Morocco and France in Johannesburg on December 14, 2022. (Photo by Marco Longari / AFP) (Photo by MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images)

Loadshedding schedules are typically published in advance and are based on a predetermined rotation system, which allows electricity utilities to spread the burden of the power outages evenly across different areas. Loadshedding typically affects residential and commercial customers, but it can also affect essential services such as hospitals and water treatment plants.

Loadshedding is deeply unpopular with the public, as it can cause inconvenience and disruption to daily life. The government and electricity utilities have been working to improve the country’s electricity generation capacity and reduce the frequency of load shedding.

Ramaphosa has announced a series of measures designed to tackle the country’s energy crisis, including stabilizing Eskom, increasing private investment in new generation capacity and boosting South Africa’s investment in renewables. 

Ramaphosa said that over the next 12 months, Eskom would increase the budget allocated for critical maintenance to boost the reliability of its generation capacity and that the utility would purchase additional energy from existing private generators and import electricity from countries such as Botswana and Zambia through the Southern African Power Pool arrangement. 

The measures are aimed at improving the performance of Eskom’s existing fleet of power stations, accelerating the procurement of new generation capacity and increasing private investment in generation capacity.

Samson Mulugeta has reported from 45 of Africa’s 54 countries and has lived and worked in South Africa for two decades.

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