Should you laugh or cry? Welcome to South Africa

IT IS both funny and tragic at the same time. A short newspaper report in one of South Africa’s largest cities, Port Elizabeth, noted that because municipal workers had decided to strike, no one went in to work to turn off the city’s power, as part of the country’s load-shedding regimen. African Angle by Barry Avery

Staff Reporter

So, the power stayed on, much to the joy of the Port Elizabeth’s power-starved residents. The double-edged sword is that there were no Nelson Mandela Bay municipal workers, who service Port Elizabeth, on call-out should emergencies occur.

Such is life in South Africa right now; you are grateful when the power actually stays on, even for the wrong reasons. In this instance, the people paid to implement load-shedding did not pitch up for work to turn off the electricity.

Load-shedding has become the biggest talking point for South Africans, as they try to find ways to readjust their lives to fit in with power provider Eskom’s schedules of power cuts.

Apart from the inconvenience of the power cuts at pre-determined times on certain days, Eskom does not always stick to its own schedule – and outages can be fairly random or erratic, presenting a fresh range of additional dangers.

The portable power generation business has taken off, in the same way as other devices for heating, cooling, charging and lighting have begun to populate the shelves of South Africa’s supermarkets and hardware shops.

And there have been some horror stories of dodgy mini gensets catching fire, claiming both lives and properties. Others have died from toxic fume inhalation from petrol-driven gensets in unventilated homes.

Some suburbs are being choked with the fumes from the carbon monoxide emissions, and are subject to noise pollution as thousands of gensets roar away through the night. (On the bright side, load-shedding has led to some remarkably innovative products to help minimise the discomfort of on-off power. One of these is a light bulb which is able to store power while the electricity is on, to use when Eskom shuts it off.)

The real danger, however, is being masked for the continent’s largest economy – and it is unfortunate that the ruling African National Congress government appears to be both unwilling and unable to address the issue of providing a stable power supply. Evidence of this was revealed in the South African parliament in early August when President Jacob Zuma admitted he did not know of impending job losses in the mining sector.

While Zuma has no excuse for this kind of breathtaking ignorance, what was a potential power problem began under the ANC leadership of former President Thabo Mbeki who, shortly after the turn of the new century, ignored expert warnings that by 2008 Eskom would not be able to provide the electricity needed to power South Africa. The country needed to refurbish the existing infrastructure and build more power stations.

The 2008 prediction, dismissed by Mbeki, in fact came to pass in 2007 when mass blackouts began occurring in South Africa, right at the peak of the resources supercycle.

Current load-shedding restrictions, along with chronic labour unrest and commodity prices in reverse gear, the outlook for the mining industry is not good. (An unlikely upside for platinum group metals occurred in the first South African power crisis; the price of PGMs soared as the world’s biggest producers – South Africa and Zimbabwe – were unable to retain output levels.)

South Africa is not alone in this as it is so inextricably linked to its Southern African Development Community (SADC) neighbours. When South Africa hurts, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and other smaller or more distant neighbours bleed.

There’s a huge irony to all of this, as all the SADC members have varying richness in energy sources. There’s coal aplenty in South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana, uranium in South Africa, Namibia, Malawi – and soon to be developed in Botswana and Zambia. This is not even taking into account the SADC’s green power sources, such as hydroelectric, sun, wind and wave.

South Africa is also a nuclear reactor pioneer and is home to respected mining institutions such as Mintek, one of the global leaders in mineral and metallurgical innovation.

South Africa was built on gold and diamonds, and has strong banking and financial institutions, a deep history of mining and wealth of natural sources. But as long as the presidency remains in denial of the problems which could wipe out the mining industry, the economies of South Africa and its SADC neighbours will continue to suffer.