South Africa is experiencing a winter of discontent as the country grapples with the biggest energy crisis in its history.
People are experiencing continuous blackouts of up to six hours a day and are having to face a very cold winter with an erratic and unreliable power supply.
A typical day of what state-owned power company Eskom euphemistically calls “stage six load shedding” consists of waking up without power, driving to work through congested roads because traffic lights don’t work, being hit by the roar of generators . at the workplace, and then find that the power has gone out once again when you return home.
It’s enough to make George Landon, a resident of South Africa’s main city, Johannesburg, want to leave the country.
“I had a job interview in London. I’m booking my flight tomorrow because of the state we’re in. Unfortunately I love my country, but the country needs to love us too,” he says.
Mismanagement and corruption at Eskom means that South Africa has been experiencing power outages for many years, but this is about to be the worst yet.
The country is fast approaching last year’s figure of 2,521 gigawatt hours of electricity cut off the grid. So far, Eskom has lost 2,276 gigawatt hours and we are only in July.
To prevent a complete grid collapse, Eskom cuts power in different parts of the country at once.
Last week, Eskom entered stage six for the first time since December 2019, meaning it had to cut 6,000 megawatt hours to avoid a nationwide blackout. There are eight stages of load shedding: each stage means that 1,000 megawatt hours must be cut.
Many residents have to go up to six hours a day without electricity.
Eskom tells people when the lights will go out in their area, but it doesn’t always stick to its schedule. Sometimes it can happen sooner or later.
The power outages have been exacerbated by industrial action by Eskom workers who went on strike last week.
Wage negotiations between Eskom and workers from three unions broke down, forcing them to lay down tools, severely hampering operations and vital maintenance work.
Eskom boss Andre de Ruyter criticized the striking workers, calling the industrial action “illegal” and accusing them of holding the country “hostage”.
Eskom workers are classified as essential in South Africa and are not allowed to strike.
However, the spokesman for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), Phakamile Hlubi, took offense, saying the workers were “almost facing the public” while the government failed to acknowledge that their “major failures” had triggered the crisis.
A now a payment agreement has been reached But Eskom says that doesn’t mean the end of power outages, as it will take time to clear the backlog of maintenance work.
Furthermore, Eskom is constrained by a massive $26bn (£22bn) in debt, which is compounded by the fact that it has old and inefficient power plants that require constant work to keep them running.
Two new power plants it has built have been plagued by cost overruns, design flaws and ongoing delays. As a result, they are not generating enough electricity.
In May this year, Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe signed three agreements to buy power from independent producers, seen as a step towards ending Eskom’s power monopoly. They are considered the world’s largest combined renewable solar and battery projects.
While progress is being made to plug the generating capacity shortfall, South Africans have been warned to expect load shedding for another two to three years.
The power outages have had a severe effect on the economy and are likely to stifle economic growth and further deepen the unemployment crisis, which is a staggering 34.5%.
For Boitumelo Mokoena, who runs a small furniture manufacturing company in Alexandra, a bustling Johannesburg township, not having electricity is a death sentence for his business, especially after the Covid lockdowns.
“When the power is out, the big machines have to stop. It’s affected our timelines. We’ve had cases where customers had deadlines and we couldn’t deliver on time.
“Small businesses are already struggling in the market, and if they don’t deliver it’s even worse,” says Ms Mokoena.
Small and medium-sized businesses are the engine of South Africa’s shipping economy.
They comprise at least 98% of the country’s businesses and employ between 50% and 60% of the South African workforce. according to a 2020 McKinsey & Company report.
“For each stage of load shedding, around 250 million rand ($15.3 million; £12.9 million) is lost on that particular day,” says energy expert Lungile Mashele.
“So you can imagine that at stage six, you’re basically seeing about 1.5 billion rand ($92 million) cut from the economy.”
Johannesburg resident Tebogo Kolea cannot hide her frustration.
“I am very angry because [household] budget for us is a problem at the moment. We can’t be paying electricity and after every two hours there are load cuts again,” he says.