THE people of South Africa are learning to live in the dark. Their beleaguered power utility, Eskom, is unable to meet electricity demand and in November reintroduced a tortuous schedule of rolling blackouts known as “load shedding”. South Africans now check electricity reports that read like weather forecasts: “There is a medium probability of load shedding today and tomorrow, with a higher probability on Thursday and Friday,” said a recent Eskom tweet. Newspapers print survival tips and “load shedder recipes” for food you can prepare without electricity. And there are bleak jokes aplenty. “Q: What did South Africa use before candles? A: Electricity.”
The power cuts are hurting an already stagnant economy, estimated to have expanded by just 1.4% in 2014. Both big industry and small businesses are feeling the pinch. Meanwhile Eskom has warned that the blackouts could drag on for months, perhaps even years, as it struggles with a maintenance backlog and a barrage of technical problems at its ageing power stations. There are delays in bringing new capacity online, particularly at Medupi, a heralded new coal-fired plant whose completion has been endlessly postponed.
South Africa has been here before.
In 2008 it suffered a rash of blackouts that cost the country billions of rand. Little has changed. There are increasingly loud calls from economists, business councils and opposition politicians for Eskom to be privatised, or at least for independent companies to be allowed to sell more power to the grid. Such a move would probably be opposed fiercely by South Africa’s powerful labour unions, which have long fought any steps toward privatisation.
Eskom is not the only state-run firm in trouble. South Africa’s government recently announced that it would take direct control of two other ailing state companies: debt-riddled South African Airways and the strike-racked postal service. All three will be overseen by Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s vice-president, a former trade-union leader turned business mogul, who returned full-time to politics ahead of the general election in April 2014. Mr Ramaphosa has become a troubleshooter for some of the government’s thorniest problems. His involvement in Eskom has been widely welcomed.
President Jacob Zuma has blamed apartheid as the root cause of South Africa’s electricity woes, noting that the system was built to funnel power to white homes. “The problem is that energy was structured racially to serve a particular race, not the majority,” he told delegates at a recent Young Communist League congress in Cape Town. In the past two post-apartheid decades, the government led by the African National Congress has indeed made great strides in bringing power to the rest of the country. Mr Zuma says 11m households now have electricity, twice as many as in 1994. But this is cold comfort for a country now united in darkness. Eskom’s woes—crumbling old power stations, delays in the building of new plant—were widely predicted, for example in a white paper written for the government in 1998. Few South Africans think Mr Zuma’s explanations shed light on the subject.