If it weren’t so alarming South Africa’s power crisis might be funny.
Up until a few weeks ago, South Africans made light of the drama sharing cartoons and memes on social media. When the lights are out and productivity has plummeted, levity is a useful distraction.
But the destruction of what was Africa’s strongest power utility in what was once the continent’s strongest economy is hitting home.
SA’s relatively new president Cyril Ramaphosa, known for his friendly disposition, had a rare moment of bad humour last week expressing his anger at the disintegration of Eskom, which experienced the worst possible shutdowns ever.
Routine power cuts, or load shedding, are meant to protect the strapped electricity grid from implosion. The government has assembled a team of local and international power experts to get to the heart of what is happening, though critics say it is pretty obvious - the parastatal has been subject to what many public institutions in South Africa have, blundering mismanagement and corruption.
It has had six CEOs in 10 years, its workforce has bloated and debt has ballooned to R420 billion. A BBC report says keeping Eskom alive in Africa’s most industrialised country is vital, but the government doesn’t appear to have the resources to bail Eskom out.
It urgently needs to prioritise repairs and complete the construction of two new power stations that were meant to showcase post-apartheid technology but are now seriously behind schedule and over budget.
Few people really have a grip on the full extent of the crisis at Eskom. Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, a man with a reputation for clean governance and fixing problems, is hard at work, but critics are pummeling the ruling African National Congress.
An editorial in the daily online newspaper, the Daily Maverick, said: “Eskom is a metaphor for South Africa. It’s a vast, unwieldy megalith entirely bankrupted by people who have treated it as a personal ATM and a political soccer field.”
The Daily Maverick said when disgraced former president Jacob Zuma took the reins of South Africa in 2009, Eskom produced 40,000MW, had 30,000 employees, and carried debt of R40-billion. “It now produces 48,000MW, has 37,000 employees, and services more than ten times the debt”.
“The battle for Eskom is the battle for South Africa,” one commentator said. Weekend newspaper headlines rang out about the state putting a “ring of steel” around Eskom to protect it.
Now, apart from being weighed down by corruption linked to the ANC and bad debt, it is threatened by unions related to the ruling party.
The cost of Eskom’s dysfunction is disastrous. During 2008 the National Energy Regulator of South Africa said 23 days of load shedding cost R50bn or R2 billion a day, (www.businesstech.co.za). The same report quoted a banker saying current blackouts could cut the GDP by 30%-50% in the first quarter of 2019. These numbers, another commentator said, “made you physically wince”.
In the meantime, South Africans are scurrying around buying generators and trying their best to make do. News channel ENCA explained Stage 4 blackouts as load shedding 12 times over a four day period for two hours at a time, or 12 times over an eight-day period for four hours at a time.
The most popular app downloaded in South Africa last week was “EskomSePush” which helps users navigate load shedding. It had 2500 active users until Stage 4 load shedding hit. Now it has 400 000.
So navigate work life around blackouts or do as lawyer Charmaine Schwenn did: she shut down her entire law practice for a day.
She took to Facebook to share the moment.
“I had the most incredible day with my team yesterday. We had booked to do our company photo shoot in the morning and, of course, *Eishkom in their wisdom did load shedding! So there we were all dressed in our finery, (girls hair and makeup was done for the shoot!) and we were MELTING! Literally. We rejoiced when the electricity came back on at 10am as per the load shedding schedule, for a minute, only for something to blow somewhere in some substation, and for us to have no electricity for the rest of the day. Now, when we have no electricity, we have no business - no computers, no phones. So we adjourned to my home and concluded the photo shoot there, had awesome lunch and played in the pool.”
*Eish is a South African expression of exasperation. Eskom is know locally as Eishkom.
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