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Russell Pollitt, S.J.September 22, 2023
People in Soweto, South Africa, walk past electricity pylons July 3, 2022, during frequent power outages because of aging coal-fired plants. (CNS photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters)People in Soweto, South Africa, walk past electricity pylons July 3, 2022, during frequent power outages because of aging coal-fired plants. (CNS photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters)

Crippling power cuts in South Africa are devastating the economy and causing significant disruptions to daily life. Over the last few months, many South Africans have endured more frequent and longer power outages. Many days, this has meant up to 11.5 hours with no power in a 24-hour cycle for some South Africans.

The outages, called “loadshedding,” occur as the electric utility cuts power to predetermined areas, rotating continuously in a 24-hour cycle. The strategy is intended to prevent total collapse of the electric grid. These periods typically range from 2.5 hours to 4.5 hours, depending on the stage of loadshedding implemented. Higher stages have longer and more frequent cuts.

The power cuts result from several factors: the inability of the country’s aging power-generating system to cope with growing demand, frequent breakdowns of old coal plants, poor maintenance, mismanagement, massive corruption and political infighting—even sabotage. A problem well known to South African politics, “cadre deployment,” where politically connected individuals and businesses are given lucrative contracts despite their level of competence, exacerbates the problem.

The power cuts result from the inability of the country’s aging power system to cope with growing demand, frequent breakdowns of old coal plants, mismanagement, corruption and political infighting—even sabotage.

After their biannual plenary in August, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference released a pastoral letter, titled “All Citizens to Reclaim the Dream,” reflecting on the problems confronting South Africa. The bishops encouraged South Africans not to lose hope. “The ever-growing gap between those who have and have not, the deteriorating infrastructure and rampant corruption on the part of self-serving citizens—we do not allow these to rob us of the hope that together we can salvage our vision of a country which is home to all,” they wrote.

The country’s electricity generating company, Eskom, is owned by the government. Loadshedding was initiated at the end of 2003 in the second and last term of former President Thabo Mbeki. The power utility had to literally “shed” some of its power demand to keep the overall system from breaking down.

Mr. Mbeki followed the South African icon, Nelson Mandela, as the country’s second president of the democratic era. In 1998, a report from the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs warned that the country would run out of electricity generating capacity if immediate action was not taken to prevent this. Despite the warnings, the Mbeki administration took no action.

Matters became worse under President Jacob Zuma (2009-2018). Borrowing from the government, the power utility became heavily burdened by debt and endured years of mismanagement and corruption. The final report of a judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, headed by the country’s Chief Justice, Judge Raymond Zondo, named Mr. Zuma as “a critical player” in the downfall of Eskom. The report stated that Mr. Zuma would “do anything” to place the interests of “corrupt associates ahead of those of his country.”

In their recent pastoral letter, the bishops said, “We salute the work of the State Capture Commission, and we find it disheartening that we are slow to recognise the damage of cadre deployment and nepotism in that it robs old and young, those who are ably qualified, from making their rightful contribution to society.”

Despite many promises over several years, South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been unable to deliver on a pledge to end loadshedding.

The bishops said that they recognized that the crisis the country faces is not only political but also spiritual and moral. They joined their voices to “those who justly denounce the greed of the few who enrich themselves at the expense of the many,” adding, “any form of corruption, nepotism, vandalism or dereliction of duty weakens the fabric of society and works against the common good.”

Despite many promises over several years, South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been unable to deliver on a pledge to end loadshedding. When he was deputy president, Mr. Ramaphosa told the National Council of Provinces in September 2015: “In another 18 months to two years, you will forget the challenges that we had with relation to power and energy and Eskom ever happened.” In 2019, Mr. Ramaphosa expressed his “surprise and shock” when especially severe loadshedding was implemented.

The power situation has deteriorated even further, and South Africans have experienced loadshedding almost constantly since September 2022.

In March 2023, Mr. Ramaphosa appointed a new Minister of Electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa. This was a surprising move, as the country already had a mineral and energy affairs ministry and a ministry for state-owned enterprises. Mr. Ramokgopa has not been able to do much to improve infrastructure.

He recently defended the practice of excess diesel burning, a measure, he said, to “protect the South African economy.” He has often blamed the weather and lack of maintenance for the country’s poor electrical supply. Earlier this week, he said the warmer spring weather was to blame for the ongoing power shortages.

No customer, industrial sector or public service has been spared from the power losses. Hospitals and schools have had to negotiate power-cut exemptions. Power cuts at hospitals have, at times, had deadly consequences.

South African businesses are concerned that they would lose out to Chinese companies in the massive rollout of renewable energy infrastructure.

Because power has become so undependable, the government has abandoned some schools, especially those that serve poor and disadvantaged communities without the resources to locate alternative energy capacity. In many poor areas of the country, children get a meal at school. When there is no power, some children forfeit the one meal they would have received. Children struggle to learn and study when they are hungry.

Newly released data from the International Monetary Fund reveal that the South African economy grew by a mere 0.4 percent between January and March. According to the I.M.F., crippling power cuts were part of the reason for the country’s weak growth rate.

Loadshedding has resulted in job losses in some of the country’s significant industrial areas. In Nelson Mandela Bay, the center of South Africa’s motor manufacturing industry and its many ancillary businesses, a survey showed that “the risk of retrenchments and closures remained high due to lost production and increased overhead costs incurred in the purchase of generators, solar power or [power] inverters.”

Small business owners who do not have the resources to acquire alternative energy sources are often the first to lay off workers, worsening the country’s already high unemployment rate. South Africa has the continent’s most industrialized economy, yet its unemployment rate is among the highest in the world. In the second quarter of 2023, the country’s unemployment rate was 33 percent, and as high as 42 percent when those discouraged from seeking work are included. The problem of unemployment is most acute among young black South Africans.

The cost of backup power resources is high and prices of diesel for generators have escalated sharply. When the power goes off, there is less foot traffic on urban streets and fewer people go into stores, as they become an unattractive environment for shopping. Many smaller stores do not have backup power sources, so credit card machines cannot function and merchants and customers are forced to return to a cash economy. With no power, automatic teller machines do not work and South Africans cannot withdraw cash—and so retailers lose more business.

With their everyday lives so disrupted, ordinary citizens are suffering higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression. The loss of Wi-Fi connections means one cannot conduct day-to-day business, and prolonged periods of power outage make the mobile phone network unstable as backup battery systems are not able to rebuild capacity. Security equipment does not work, and people feel vulnerable.

Small business owners who do not have the resources to acquire alternative energy sources are often the first to lay off workers, worsening the country’s already high unemployment rate.

Electronic equipment is damaged when the power goes on and off multiple times a day, and, at times, when power is restored, surges can destroy sensitive equipment. There is also nightmarish traffic congestion when the lights go down. Some insurance companies will not insure against power surges and power-related damages.

Many poor people turn to other means for light and heat, like paraffin stoves and fires, when the power is off. Some believe that the recent fire in Johannesburg could have been caused by a stove or small fire made in the building when the power was cut. There is still no official report on the cause of the fire that claimed the lives of 77 people, including 12 children.

South Africa’s Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs, Gwede Mantashe, does not support renewable energy. He believes the hope of renewable energy solving South Africa’s power problems is “exaggerated.”

Mr. Mantashe has been accused of trying to use the energy crisis to push through more expensive, polluting and problematic projects, which, in the end, only enrich some individuals connected to the ruling African National Congress, its cadres and corporations. Some believe South Africa will not overcome loadshedding until Mr. Mantashe is removed from office.

The minister has suggested that South Africa look to its neighbors for help and begin importing energy from natural gas-powered plants. Mr. Mantashe has often been accused of having personal interests in the oil and petroleum industry. For example, he fought a court order to halt gas and oil exploration off the country’s east coast that was meant to protect the fragile natural habitat.

Mr. Mantashe is also an advocate of the use of Karpowerships, a Turkish utility that can deploy ship-based energy-producing platforms. Banks and other financial institutions have proved reluctant to fund this initiative, however, as concerns have been raised about the impact of these ships on the environment and their ability to make a difference to the power problems in the long run.

South Africa recently entered agreements with China on the sidelines of the August BRICS summit in Johannesburg. China is set to provide South Africa with $9 million worth of emergency power equipment and is entering another agreement to assist South Africa in overhauling its energy sector, a plan which would include upgrading its power transmission and distribution network.

China will help extend the life of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants. Its officials say they can offer technology to cut emissions at a lower cost than could be achieved through other global sources. China may also set up transformer and solar panel manufacturing facilities in the country. The timelines for these deals have yet to be made public.

But the agreements with China have raised concerns. South African businesses are concerned that they would lose out to Chinese companies in the massive rollout of renewable energy infrastructure. Mike Benfield, the C.E.O. of Macsteel (a local company that manufactures and distributes steel for infrastructure), said that business should not go to Chinese industry. “This should go to local industry,” he said, adding that larger steel firms would subcontract to smaller South African businesses, a trickle-down that would mean a lifeline to many struggling, small businesses.

Growing the economy and creating new employment opportunities are essential in a country with high unemployment and where many people are living below the poverty line.

In 2024, South Africans will go to the polls. The ruling A.N.C. will likely lose the support of many voters fed up with the decline of the country’s economy and failing infrastructure. For many in South Africa, the daily burden of loadshedding may decide next year’s ballot.

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