Car crashes, opportunistic criminals, rotting food, decomposing bodies, bankrupt businesses, and water shortages. Welcome to life under South Africa’s power blackouts.
Last week the grim extent of the outages was laid bare when South Africans were advised to bury dead loved ones within four days.
In a public statement, the South African Funeral Practitioners Association warned that bodies in mortuaries were rapidly decomposing because of the unrelenting electricity outages, putting huge pressure on funeral parlors struggling to process corpses.
The situation is so bad that the country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa is considering declaring a national disaster, similar to one in 2020 at the height of the Covid pandemic, which had a devastating effect on the country’s economy.
Last week scores of supporters from the Democratic Alliance opposition party marched under heavy security through the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town to voice their frustrations over the persistent blackouts.
A difference between life and death
Known locally as loadshedding, widespread electricity blackouts are carried out multiple times a day by state-owned energy utility Eskom to avoid the total collapse of the grid.
Shortages on the electricity system unbalance the network, and Eskom has stated that controlled outages are necessary to ensure reserve margins are maintained, and the system remains stable.
While the country has been experiencing on-off power outages for years, since September 2022 scheduled blackouts have become routine, affecting every part of South African society.
For some people, not having access to reliable power can be the difference between life and death.
Before she died in October 2022, Lis Van Os needed oxygen for 17 hours a day. Her stationary oxygen machine required mains power, making periods of loadshedding extremely stressful, particularly when power did not return as scheduled, her family said.
Her daughter Karin McDonald was forced to explore backup options such as inverters and a back up oxygen mobile tank, which only lasted short periods.
“Towards the end (of her life) power outages created a lot of anxiety for everyone,” she said.
‘A pool of misery’
South Africans experienced more than twice as many power cuts in 2022 than in any other year. And things are set to get worse in 2023.
Even simple daily tasks need to be arranged around loadshedding schedules, including meal planning, travel times, work that requires internet connectivity.
From preparing baby formula to keeping fans running during the summer heat, not having access to mains power is makes daily life challenging for South Africans.
Maneo Motsamai, a domestic worker in Johannesburg, says the outages prevents her from simple tasks such as cooking.
“I boil water to cook mealie meal (maize porridge) and the power goes. I can’t eat, it’s a waste. I can’t cope like that,” Motsamai told CNN.
Pump stations can’t provide water and many small businesses without access to backup power are having to close shop and lay off employees, according to people CNN spoke to.
Thando Makhubu runs Soweto Creamery, an ice cream shop in Jabulani, Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. His family pooled small welfare grants they received during the Covid-19 pandemic to set up the business, but are now feeling the pressure from power outages.
In early January, the shop was without power for 72 hours, when electricity did not return as scheduled. Thando was forced to shell out money for diesel to power their generator and prevent all his stock melting. He says the outages are costly and destroying their hopes of expanding.
Bongi Monjanaga, who runs a startup cleaning services company operating across Johannesburg, says the outages affect every part of her fledgling business, such as operating electric cleaning equipment, entering and leaving premises when security gates aren’t functioning, and having internet to invoice clients and complete online tax compliance documents.
“I find myself in this pool of misery when I’m just trying to start up. I’m just trying to grow,” she says.
Dead chickens, food shortages, higher prices
The escalation of power outages is also deeply worrying for South Africa’s food security, driving up prices, and placing an even greater strain on stretched household budgets.
With modern farming practices ever more reliant on electricity for crop irrigation, processing, and storage, loadshedding is having a huge impact on agricultural output.
Gys Olivier, a farmer from Hertzogville in Free State province, in east-central South Africa, says he and other farmers in the area have been forced to throw away hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of seed potatoes due to disruptions to the ‘cold chain’ – (the process of keeping produce refrigerated throughout the supply chain.)
There is also less demand from growers due to water shortages, with pump stations reliant on electricity to operate.
“We have done everything we can to make sure there is food on the table for a very good price, but it’s become so capital-intensive to farm,” Olivier says.
Meanwhile livestock and poultry are dying before they even get to the slaughterhouse.
A gruesome video circulating on social media shows workers removing 50,000 dead broiler chickens from a farm in North West province, the birds suffocated when power outages caused ventilation systems to stop. The financial damage to the farmer was around ZAR1.6m ($93,300) according to local media reports.
A crime ‘pandemic’
South Africa is notorious for high crime rates, and loadshedding is making it worse as home security systems fail when the power goes out, giving criminals a field day inside unsecured properties.
Policing also becomes harder, with officers unable to reach crime scenes fast enough due to congestion when traffic lights are off.
Tumelo Mogodiseng, General Secretary of the South African Policing Union (SAPU), describes the load-shedding as “a pandemic.”
He says his members’ lives are now more at risk, with officers unable to see potentially dangerous situations in the darkness, and police stations, many of which don’t have backup power systems, at risk of attack from criminals during blackouts.
“Police are dying every day in this country. If this is happening in the daylight, what happens when there is no light for them to see at night?”
Mogodiseng also worries that crimes are going unreported, with citizens fearful of leaving their houses during outages and traveling in the darkness. “Communities won’t travel to police stations to open cases because they are afraid,” he told CNN.
Gareth Newham, who runs the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, says that it’s hard to get solid data on the impact outages are having on crime. While anecdotal evidence suggests criminals are exploiting outages, the recent escalation of loadshedding has coincided with the Christmas holidays, when crime rates typically spike.
His biggest concern is that continued loadshedding or a temporary grid collapse could lead to a repeat of the coordinated civil unrest, rioting, and looting in parts of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces 18 months ago.
“A complete breakdown in the grid could be the trigger for local level gangs getting more power, and we could see a similar kind of violence to that we saw in July 2021.”
Eskom: The Roots of a Crisis
Under the ruling African National Congress (ANC), in charge since 1994, Eskom has become synonymous with corruption, crime, and mismanagement.
Last year a judge-led inquiry into graft under the former president, Jacob Zuma, found that there were grounds to prosecute several former Eskom executives.
The government has failed to build new power stations to keep up with increased demand, and warnings from energy experts on looming supply shortages across the past two decades have gone ignored.
A 2019 report by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering shows skilled engineers have been leaving the country in droves.
Despite spending billions of USD on two huge coal power stations, neither works properly.
Older plants are dilapidated due to a lack of maintenance, and organized crime steals vital coal supplies and cable from the rail lines going from mines to power stations.
Renewable energy companies say they are desperate to supply to the grid, but the government has been slow to cut red tape and streamline regulatory processes that would reduce the time frame for environmental authorisations, registration of new projects and grid connection approvals.
Legal challenges against the government and Eskom are stacking up. Several political parties and trade unions say they will take the government and state utility to court for not upholding their duty to provide electricity.
Adjusting to life in the dark
With no end in sight to the outages, South Africans are desperate for alternative energy sources, but even they are out of the reach of many citizens.
Thando Makhubu says he was shocked by the cost to power his ice cream business off-grid. “We were quoted R100,000 ($5,945) and that excluded the solar panels.”
Karin McDonald, who runs a swimming school, similarly found the upfront costs of solar prohibitive. “We received quotes for solar for the business and house and were not looking at anything less than half a million rand ($29,500) which is a major life decision to make,” she said.
There is also a long wait for solar. “I know a solar provider that had 40 requests just last week, all for big solar projects, ” said Angus Williamson, a cattle farmer from KwaZulu-Natal province.
As they come to terms with their new reality, many South Africans are finding it hard to stay optimistic.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is a train heading in our direction,” said Williamson.