Tag Archives: load shedding

Saying my Farewells to South Africa

In the same week that South Africa commemorates the funeral of former president and national icon, Nelson Mandela, it seems that I, personally, will be remembering the country itself – only from afar.

Which is a shame as, before returning to the UK my Beloved and I had hoped to spend a final happy Christmas together here in Johannesburg, basking in the sunshine and enjoying a bit of relaxed African downtime.

But, sadly, it seems that bureaucracy has got the better of us. Despite a trip to Namibia, advised by two alleged experts on all matters immigration in order to obtain a 90-day visa extension, I found that on returning from a weekend away in the capital Windhoek, the said extension was arbitrarily denied.

The only way I could get one apparently was to fly off to the UK and back again. Namibia, despite being a sovereign nation these days, simply didn’t cut it – even though Namibians are just as entitled as subjects of Her Majesty to enter the country for three months on a visa waiver. Go figure.

So what all of this means is that I’ve now had to change my flight from early January to this Saturday, or risk being blacklisted and not allowed into the country again. Charming.

But I must admit that this apparent making-up-of-new-rules-on-the-fly without anyone ever seeming to know about them is one thing that I won’t particularly miss about the African way of life.

Another is load shedding, the name given locally to the scheduled, rolling national power blackouts that are designed to keep South Africa’s national grid from collapsing, and which are the talk of the nation at the moment.

For one, they take place at all hours of the day or night, which is deeply inconvenient at a personal level.

On the other hand, there is lots of concern, especially among small companies unable to afford generators, about the damage being done to their businesses, the inevitable worry being that the situation, if it continues, will kill them eventually.

A question of power

To put a price tag on the debacle, some economists have pointed out that power outages cost the economy a huge ZAR6.8bn (£37 million), or 0.2% of GDP, last year, with conservative estimates indicating that the situation this year will be at least as bad.

Indeed, state-owned monopoly Eskom may have promised that the lights should more or less stay on until January, helped by generally lower power usage during high summer.

But it has also warned South Africans to brace themselves for ongoing power supply problems for at least the next 18 months until it can bring two new power stations online – a situation that, I among others, find deeply worrying for the future financial health, and related long-term social stability, of the country.

At the end of last week though, President Zuma took the interesting step of denying that the country’s energy challenges had anything to do with years of government underfunding or mismanagement. Instead he chose to blame Eskom’s current difficulties in supplying demand on the apartheid regime, which collapsed 20 years ago.

The utility, he informed delegates at the Young Communist League’s congress in Cape Town, had been structured to provide electricity exclusively to the white minority, “not the majority”, which is where the foundations of the problem lay.

But unlike hospitals, airports, mines and Parliament, it seems that the President’s official residences in both Pretoria and Cape Town are, luckily, insulated from power cuts themselves due to “technical reasons”. Therefore, he is in the fortuitous position of not having to share the majority’s pain.

But all of this raises two salient points about South Africa. One is the desperate, grinding poverty that most of the population still, very noticeably, lives in once you leave the well-heeled, predominantly white suburbs and business districts.

A land of contrasts

The disparity between the prosperous and the poor in this beautiful, resource-rich country is the greatest in the world. But it is this very inequality, which drastically bumps up average per capita income levels, that means South Africa fails to qualify for all too many donor programmes from bodies such as the United Nations.

As a result, the country all too often fails to get the financial aid it so desperately requires to help its needy population – an obvious wrong that should really be righted somehow.

Another distinctively South African issue raised by President Zuma’s comments is the thorny one of race, in this land still so deeply scarred by the brutalities of the apartheid regime – and one that lives on to this day, in fact, through the economic and social structures introduced by policies such as forced resettlement.

As a result, I can quite honestly say that I’ve never lived anywhere where race appears to form such an undercurrent to so many conversations, and where so few people of different heritage seem to mix socially – a culture shock after living in multi-cultural Britain, and especially London, for so long.

Despite this, what did give me huge hope – and not just symbolically – was seeing young students at Stellenbosch University, the so-called engine room of apartheid, starting to do just that – to learn together, play together and even, in some instances, go out together. And although not enormously widespread, the same is true to some extent of the younger generation here in Johannesburg too.

But in spite of its troubles, South Africa has a lot of plus points. I’ll certainly miss the climate and its balance in favour of warm/hot weather, appalling winters notwithstanding.

I’ll also miss the friendliness and courtesy of the people – being called “Tannie” (Auntie) by Afrikaans speakers or “Mami” by black Africans whose gorgeous smiles could light up rooms, despite past and current circumstances. Such terms, employed as a mark of respect for age, show a civility forgotten long ago in the UK.

But I’ll also miss learning about the country’s fascinating cultures and traditions and the ways of a nation in some ways so viscerally linked to Britain and in others, so vastly different.

So all in all, it’s been a blast. Thank you, South Africa – for everything. I’ll remember you always.

If you’re interested in finding out about the social and cultural mores of the UK, feel free to catch up with my new blog entitled www.mygreatbritishadventure.com.


South Africa: Land of the Rolling Power Blackout

I can’t think that I’ve witnessed scheduled rolling blackouts since I was a child during the dark days of the 1970s.


But I do remember the inconvenience of what seemed like endless power cuts as the lights were suddenly extinguished and we were bundled off to my grandma’s to indulge ourselves in the warmth of her coal fire.


In a just-in-case kind of way, my mam still insists to this day that her electric cooker has a gas hob so that eating can be assured one way or the other. Such scars run deep.


So needless to say, it was a rather unpleasant blast-from-the past last week when, yet again, the lights went out. After a week or so of relentless, sleeting rain across the entire eastern region of South Africa, which unfortunately included Gauteng, it turned out that state monopoly, Eskom, was suffering a soggy coal problem.


While this may sound like the lamest excuse ever when you’re chucking fossil fuel into a mega-hot furnace, apparently it’s legit – Eskom chief executive, Brian Dames, announced it to the world himself that the power outages were the result of wet coal from opencast mines, which by default were vulnerable to the weather.


To make matters worse, because it was allegedly too costly for the utility to cover its entire stockpile – with anything apparently – the heavy rain had also ended up soaking much of its existing coal supply.


This situation, combined with a portfolio of ageing power stations that are currently under maintenance until a couple of much delayed new installations come online, mean that warnings over how tight energy reserves are, have been going on for months.


In the dark


The upshot of this debacle last Thursday though was that power had to be rationed and a two-hourly rotational ‘load-shedding’, or planned rolling blackout, schedule put in place across the country – a scenario not experienced on this scale since 2008 when a similar debacle cost the South African economy a stonking R50bn (£2.8 billion).


So after things had begun to look hairy last week, businesses were asked to reduce their power consumption by 10%, but it was just too late. We were for it.


And so it was that the full onslaught of this policy to save the national grid from collapse hit my humble abode in Parkhurst a tad before 8pm, but luckily just after I’d had my dinner.


As I scrambled around for my candles hidden carefully away in cupboards that I could no longer find, however, I realised with some trepidation that my house was now apparently unprotected.


As the electric fence and internal security system were currently without power to feed them, I felt distinctly vulnerable – and I’m not usually the neurotic type. But my Beloved was away travelling with work and I was all alone in a city with a shocking reputation for violent crime.


As a case in point, the hard-working guy who comes to do our garden every Monday had been accosted at gun point by a couple of thugs only the week before. He had been withdrawing his monthly wages from an ATM at the time, but in the blink of an eye was left destitute, with rent and nursery fees for his young child to pay for. Awful.


And if I were a robber, I’d certainly have been inclined to take advantage of the fact that it was dark and everyone’s security systems were down.


Hence sitting for the next two and a half hours jumping at every sound while trying to read my book by candlelight – and ensuring that my mobile phone was firmly in my line of sight so that I could alert our private security guard firm, Cortac, should the need arise.


Welcome to Africa


It turns out though that I had nothing to worry about as, according to my Beloved, these systems have 24-hour batteries to keep them going. But I certainly felt more reassured when he was sitting beside me on Sunday night as the power collapsed again for an hour. There’s nothing like (even ephemeral) safety in numbers.


Apparently that particular little incident won’t be the last of it, however. Eskom has made it clear that a combination of the unseasonal on-going rain and expected high demand as winter comes ever closer mean that there could be more scheduled electricity cuts over the next couple of months.


According to a posting on the local Democratic Alliance party’s website – the Eskom one couldn’t seem to offer information on anywhere in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs that I checked anyway –should demand exceed supply again, it’ll mean that the lights will go out in Parkhurst and its environs from 6pm to 10pm on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Oh joy.


Very sensibly though, a lot of local businesses already seem well prepared – presumably in the wake of similar problems six years ago.


My dentist, for example, assured me that, should the power go out in the middle of my second root canal treatment this year, I had nothing to worry about because he had his own generator. Which was, of course, a blessed relief and did serve to ease my discomfort somewhat.


But he’s certainly not the only one. Our local restaurant and bar area, Fourth Avenue, still seems to be keeping the lights on in the main. While some organisations have their own generators, it seems that others share with their neighbours, while yet others rent capacity to third parties in the same building. Which is all very entrepreneurial of them, it must be said.


As ever though, after the first shock of the crisis, everyone seems to be remarkably sanguine about it all. “Oh well,’ they say, rolling their eyes. “It is what it is. Welcome to Africa.”





Keeping the lights on

Rather unfortunately, it appears that we could well be having a winter of power blackouts here in South Africa – undoubtedly leading to a winter of discontent, in my household anyway.


As a result, state monopoly, Eskom, which was set up in 1923 and provides 95% of South Africa’s energy, has been pleading with customers to try and conserve electricity after announcing that supply will be “very tight” over the next few months, particularly during the evening peak usage time of 5-9pm.


It’s at that point that most people get in from work and so, rather inconveniently for us home bodies, cause a surge in demand by having the audacity to switch on their lights, heaters, cookers and other multifarious gadgets all at once.


Because of this selfish indulgence, everyone is now being asked to turn off their non-essential lights and appliances, which includes that all-important pool pump – a request that is likely to cause mini-riots in the suburbs, I’d have thought.


The ultimate aim though is to prevent the need for so-called “load shedding” or planned rolling blackouts across different areas of the country, based on a rotating schedule.


Last time that little tactic was employed in 2008 in a bid to ensure the stability of the national grid, it cost the South African economy a stonking R50 billion. And so you can see why Eskom would be keen to prevent a similar debacle.


But the crux of the problem at the moment is that, following a decade of government under-investment, the country’s energy production system is in desperate need of an overhaul, not least to cater to the requirements of the ever-burgeoning townships.


Almost two-thirds of Eskom’s power stations are more than midway through their expected operating lives, but the company has found it tricky to undertake higher levels of vital planned maintenance work while continuing to meet growing demand.


South Africa’s green agenda


The situation has now got to such a stage that the work can’t be put off any longer apparently and so the utility is rolling out a five-year maintenance plan to try and ensure that the lights stay on until two new power stations come on-stream in 2014 and 2017 respectively. Not good.


But all of these shenanigans got me to wondering about South Africa’s green agenda. Perhaps somewhat naively, you kind of think that, in a country as beautiful as this one, people might be really keen to preserve it, conserve it, protect it and nurture it.


Looking at things in terms of carbon emissions though, South Africa is the continent’s worst polluter, and being one of the heaviest coal users anywhere, is one of the top 20 carbon emitters in the world.


But, the government, does appear to be trying to clean up its act. By 2030, it’s requiring that 42% or so of all electricity generated in the country must come from renewable sources – a mix of wind, solar and hydro.


And US-based research body, the Pew Charitable Trusts, recently lauded South Africa for not only being a world leader in the green-energy race, but also for acting as a “cornerstone of clean energy development for the entire African continent”, after investing a huge $5.5 billion in 28 projects last year. Heady stuff.

But without meaning to put a great, big dampner on things, at street level things don’t look quite as glowing – although my observations are purely anecdotal and certainly aren’t based on any scientific fact.

For example, unlike in the UK, the green issue doesn’t appear to be particularly high up the middle class agenda in terms of conversation, or media coverage for that matter. And, despite the Mediterranean climate, I’ve yet to see a solar panel, or wind generator, attached to anyone’s house.


Moreover, although recycling is now a fairly well-established British habit, it appears that the lonely see-through plastic recycling bag that we put out faithfully every week will remain friendless for the foreseeable future.


Apparent indifference


In fact, when I’ve asked, people just pull a face, waft their hands around and pooh-pooh the matter, preferring to use their council-supplied offering as a freebie bin-bag instead.


To try and understand this apparent indifference, I asked our maid (in a non-accusatory fashion, I hasten to add) if she ever recycled anything. But her response, somewhat mystifyingly, was: “No. I live in a Coloured area.”

On enquiring (perhaps naively) as to why that should make any difference, she told me that the recycling people didn’t go there – only to more expensive areas such as the one in which we live. Which seems a bit bizarre to me.

Although there are recycling centres dotted around, as with everything in life, if it’s going to be a hassle, people don’t tend to bother. And so it is here too.

But there is a kind of underground recycling scene going on nonetheless. Early each Tuesday morning before the recycling and rubbish trucks arrive, a veritable army of entrepreneurial, black men emerge from the shadows, pushing shopping trolleys and scouring the waste for useful items such as bottles that can be sold on for a couple of Rand. Cardboard is another particular favourite.

A further thing that I’ve noticed, meanwhile, is the dearth of organic, and fairtrade, goods. Being a bit of a closet greenie, and a great believer in the power of the pound being able to make a difference in a world controlled by rampant corporate interests, I do like to spend my grocery money as judiciously as I can.

But it’s a tough ask over here. You’ll see the odd item in Woolworths, which is similar to Marks & Spencer and has close historical ties with it, as well as in the various incarnations of Spar, which is South Africa’s equivalent of Waitrose. But there’s no chance if you go to the more downmarket chains of Checkers or Pick ‘n Pay.

Another option though is to go to one of the food festivals or slow-food markets, of which there are many. But more on that later…..