In South Africa, blackouts have been quite common for years, but since September 2022, planned outages of the electricity service have become the norm, with rather serious consequences for both day-to-day operations and the country’s economy. The outages are decided by the state electricity company Eskom in order to be able to carry out maintenance work on the old and inadequate plants and avoid the collapse of the system. The government, which is trying to intervene, is also considering declaring a state of “national disaster”, as happened with the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Critics say that the inefficiency of the national electricity service is a problem that has been ignored for too long.
Eskom supplies the vast majority of electricity across South Africa, but the problem is that it relies on a number of aging and battered coal-fired power stations. To avoid overloading the systems, in 2022 it had foreseen 200 days of planned outages: since the beginning of this year, however, there have been blackouts in most of the country every day, even several times a day, causing an unprecedented situation. The shortest breaks, those of the so-called “level 1”, last two and a half hours; those envisaged in cases of extreme necessity (“level 8”, which has not yet been reached) are instead distributed at various times of the day and add up to a total of 13 and a half hours in a day.
For example, levels 5 and 6 restrictions were in effect between 31 January and 1 February in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. Within just over 24 hours, in one city block, electricity it was interrupted from 10pm to 00:30, then again from 4 to 6:30, from 12 to 16:30 and from 20 to 22:30: in total 12 hours, practically half a day.
With power outages so frequent, people have to adjust to working and scheduling common tasks like preparing food at times when they can use electricity. The situation is aggravated by the fact that it is currently summer in South Africa, and in some parts of the country temperatures have approached 40°C: without electricity and in the absence of a generator, it is not possible to use fans or air conditioners, nor industrial establishments.
Precisely because of the heat, on 24 January the national secretary of the association of South African funeral homes, Vuyisile Mabindisa, advised the population to bury the deceased within four days of death. Mabindisa said that since they could not guarantee the conservation of the bodies at the right temperatures due to the lack of electricity, many companies had found themselves burying bodies in an advanced state of decomposition, a process accelerated by the heat.
In the last weekend of January there were protests against power outages in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, Pretoria and other cities. The problem, which according to the opposition parties has been ignored for too long, is also causing great difficulty in catering, agriculture and livestock, with enormous consequences on the country’s economy.
Without electricity, restaurants risk having to throw away food that goes bad, while farms have problems with both irrigation systems and food processing processes. A farmer in the Free State province in the east of the country told CNN that both he and other farmers in the area were forced to throw away the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of euros of seed potatoes (those that are used for start cultivation) that had gone bad due to the interruption of the cold chain. In a plant in Lichtenburg, in the north of the country, 50,000 chickens raised in a shed died due to poor ventilation, with economic losses estimated at around 1.6 million rand, the equivalent of about 85,000 euros.
The situation is so serious that according to World Bank economists, in 2023 the growth of national GDP will be partly slowed down precisely because of the consequences of the interruptions in the electricity service.
In this situation they also risk increasing both road accidents and crime levels, which are already a major problem in South Africa. As noted by the secretary general of the South African Police Union, Tumelo Mogodiseng, without lighting, traffic is slower because the traffic lights do not work, patrolling the streets is more complicated and thefts and robberies are likely to go unnoticed.
For now it is difficult to establish with certainty what impact the blackouts are having on crime trends, Gareth Newham, director of the program for violence prevention and justice at the Pretoria Institute for Security Studies, told CNN. However, Newham said he feared that a worsening of the situation or a possible temporary collapse of the service could lead to riots and looting like those of July 2021, caused by the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma, but grafted onto an economic and social situation already very precarious.
Eskom has a long history of financial losses and short-sighted investments, and even after the end of apartheid in 1994, it was accused of poorly managing its facilities and business. The corruption investigations that led to Zuma’s arrest also involved some former executives of the company, which is believed to have a rather disastrous management also due to corruption. However, the current situation is a problem that does not seem to be able to be solved quickly. In a recent press conference, Eskom’s board chairman Mpho Makwana said the planned outages will continue for at least the next two years.
To try to partially resolve the situation, on Thursday the South African government – which since 1994 has always been led by the same party, the African National Congress – presented a plan which aims to limit the use of planned electricity outages. The plan is based on a broader program wanted by the current president Cyril Ramaphosa and designed to encourage the production of energy from renewable sources (South Africa produces most of its electricity by burning coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels). Among other things, it envisages interventions to restore Eskom, to redevelop existing infrastructures and to build new ones; it also plans to increase electricity imports from neighboring countries and also to buy electricity from private producers.
– Read also: The big corruption investigation in South Africa
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