Blackout warnings frequently pop up on cellphones, and people try to plan their days and nights around the power outages in their area.
The wealthy minority here have backup power systems at home to keep the lights on, and the WiFi and refrigerator running, but no one is immune. Traffic signals don’t work, causing jams at major intersections. Gas stations and stores can’t handle electronic transactions, and cash machines can’t function.
For the poor majority in this deeply unequal society, it is an ever-worsening nightmare. Already coping with high unemployment and soaring inflation, families in townships and informal settlements 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 of Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township. “When I go home there is no electricity and I can’t cook until it comes back on. Sometimes that is too late and the children have gone to bed without a proper meal for days.”
South Africa has used load shedding, or rolling blackouts, to conserve electricity since 2008, but the current outages are the worst anyone can remember. In April alone, 1,054 gigawatt-hours of power got cut nationwide, compared to 2,521 gigawatt-hours cut for all of 2021, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
The government has blamed the additional blackouts on a recent wildcat strike by workers at Eskom, the state utility company, but the problems with South Africa’s power grid run much deeper — rooted in an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants, a lack of maintenance, corruption, theft and vandalism. The strike has been resolved, but cash-strapped Eskom has warned that a backlog of repair work at the power stations could take weeks to clear, while the system could face more breakdowns.
In Cape Town, water service in some areas cannot be maintained because outages prevent pumps from filling reservoirs that supply the region. “Heavy machinery, such as water pumps, sewage pump stations, electricity transformers, and substations, are just not made to take this kind of abuse,” the city warned in a statement this week. “The constant on-again/off-again is causing dozens of localized trips.”
Energy expert Chris Yelland said the constant power cuts are a national emergency, and they could become a national disaster.
“In the worst-case scenario, a partial or a national blackout with all its consequences, including social unrest,” is possible, Yelland said. “The government and Eskom have had more than a decade to talk through and address the challenges, but the hard statistics show that the situation is not improving.”
Busisiwe Mavuso, chief executive of Business Leadership South Africa, called for diversifying electricity sources because the nation can no longer rely on Eskom.
“I’ve been told of companies forced to lay off staff because they simply couldn’t open their doors,” Mavuso wrote in her weekly newsletter. “Those with generators couldn’t get diesel to fill them fast enough. Those on batteries found them running dead.” The situation has been exacerbated by record gas prices, which have surged 36 percent in South Africa this year, in part because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Greg Bing, owner of AP Jones, a family clothing store in Cape Town’s southern Fish Hoek suburb, said years of power outages have had a “huge effect” on business.
“After the worst of covid was over we were waiting for the euphoria, but now we’re having to deal with this hole,” Bing said. “We can’t seem to get out of the quagmire.”
Bing bought a generator to keep the lights on in the store and batteries to operate cash registers and credit card machines. “The problem is that with increased frequency of load shedding the batteries don’t have time to recharge properly and the phones don’t work,” he said.
Down the road in Fish Hoek, Shiji John, owner of the Bhandaris Indian restaurant, said people were too afraid to go out at night during the blackouts. “No one comes out in the dark,” John said. “I don’t know how we can continue to operate a business like this.”
Even in such challenging times, there are small success stories.
Business at Mohammed Hussein’s corner convenience store in the PJS informal settlement in Khayelitsha has been good 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 outside his shop is still illuminated, attracting people from all over in search of a late-night snack.
“People come from neighboring areas because there is light,” Hussein said.
Read More: South Africa plunged into darkness during load shedding power crisis