South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: An epidemic of load-shedding

Op-Ed: An epidemic of load-shedding

We’re not just shedding electricity. South Africa is shedding its most valuable assets left, right and centre, and we’re going to pay the price. By MARK HEYWOOD.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines load-shedding as “the interrupting of an electricity supply to avoid excessive load on the generating plant”. The online adopts a more expansive definition, describing it as “the deliberate shutdown of electric power in a part or parts of a power-distribution system, generally to prevent the failure of the entire system when the demand strains the capacity of the system.”

Both definitions refer to the act of the shedder rather than its effect on the shed. In South Africa the term has entered our parlance and become part of every person’s consciousness in a few short months. But in contrast with its dictionary definitions, the word is felt more by its consequence. It means inconvenience and disruption. Coming from the mouths of those affected it carries a snarl of contempt. Consequently our definition might read something like this:


“A South African euphemism for electricity failures caused by poor planning by government and poor management by their national electricity utility, Eskom. Sometimes also associated with corruption.”


Now load-shedding is on everybody’s lips. It seems it will stay there. At best it causes inconvenience at worst it causes economic dislocation. A new field of discourse and study is rapidly arising around it. Some economists say it will cause us to shed 1% of our GDP. Some says its effects will be “offset” (another term with special associations in SA) by the drop in the price of oil.

Load shedding probably causes death. The Mail & Guardian has linked it to our failing water system, where load-shedding also occurs. Actually, we don’t know what load-shedding really causes. No one can look that far and wide in the present or future.

However, one thing that the political chatterati and load shedding consultants (I am sure they exist!) do not appear to have noticed yet is that load-shedding is not a phenomenon unique to our access to electricity. The name hasn’t yet been applied to other spheres of South African life but the reality is that it’s happening all over. It’s just not been declared.

Let me give a few examples.

Load shedding has become a feature of our basic education system. Every two years, between grades 10 and 12, we shed half of our cohort of learners. According to official statistics released by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) between choosing their matric subjects in 2012 and leaving school after matric in 2014 precisely 553,368 children dropped out of school.

Would-be matriculants were transformed into will-never-be matriculants.

We don’t talk about these children much, who they are or where they are.

The DBE knows that they exist and talks blandly about the need to address ‘this problem’. But unfortunately there’s no Medupi-solution for these kids – if they are just patient for a few years. They join an unemployable underclass, an amassing millions. Mark my words, they will make themselves felt in our politics in the years ahead.

We are also load shedding in our public health system. Minister Motsoaledi admitted in Parliament in July last year that 36% of people on anti-retrovirals (ARVs) stopped adhering to their medicines after three years. This could be as many as 400,000 people. In time stopping medicines will mean the return to illness and death.

Most of these people don’t stop treatment because they have failed but because the health system has failed them. Some give up because their clinics don’t have the medicines. Some give up because nobody is telling them why they must keep taking medicines now that they feel better – after all we’ve decided to keep community health workers as indentured labour to the health system. Some just give up.

There is no Medupi-solution for them either.

But here too the consequences will be grave. As we rattle towards the grand vision of a healthy nation that the National Development Plan has constructed for 2030 a new rise in mortality is possible, so too is the spread of drug resistant HIV.

But we’ll be ok if we close our eyes, use the private health system and get a pad in Steyn City.

In the killing fields of the Free State there was load shedding in the public health system over the summer holidays. On December 17th 2014 I received a text message from a doctor in Bloemfontein saying that:

“We’ve been told to operate on 70% until the end of the financial year. At (name of hospital withheld, so as to prevent this inconvenient doctor being load-shed from his post) 2 of the 5 adult medical wards, 50 of the 120 medical beds have been closed. Cheers.”

Cheers indeed.

In response to my message asking what SECTION27 could do to help, because by then the politicians were shedding their responsibilities on holiday, I received the following reply:

“I am not too sure about immediate interventions. The 70% until the end of the financial year (i.e. end March) seems to be a general approach. Thus many other institutions have also had to ‘downscale’ but I do not have first hand information on that. The situation is rather desperate, 25% of the admissions in my ward die, and the staff morale is somewhere between burned-out complacency and intimidated silence.”

So, 25% of hospital admissions were shed into coffins. Many of these deaths were preventable. Nobody knows their names.

Shed, shed, shed, shed, shed.

We ended our conversation with the doctor saying “We can’t perform miracles in the hospital.”


Finally it is now evident that we are also living in a time of shedding of inconvenient public officials.

Efforts are being made to shed Anwa Dramat from the Hawks. Vas Soni has shed himself from the SIU. Were it possible to shed Thuli Madonsela she would certainly be shorn. Max du Preez has been shed himself from ‘Independent’ newspapers. Alide Danois was shed. A faction in COSATU has shed NUMSA. In August last year some villains shed Njabulo Dube, Sibonelo “John-John” Ntuli, and Ntobeko Maphumulo, three NUMSA shop stewards in KwaZulu Natal of their lives. Ivan Pillay is proving hard to shear from SARS. So is Zwelinzima Vavi from Cosatu.

We certainly have reached a crisis in the system, but unfortunately it is not just in relation to electricity. Neither is load-shedding solving it.

Finally, let me warn that the tragedy is not just of the present. It is being laced into our future. During the reign of Thabo Mbeki we neglected our health system. An inappropriate and incompetent denialist was allowed to be our Health Minister for nearly a decade. Apart from the shedding of the lives at least 380,000 people who would have lived if they had had access to ARVs, enormous damage was done to the public health system. Today, even with a good Minister of Health, this damage is proving extremely difficult to repair. The same will prove true of our education system, our water system, our security services and what the Constitution calls our “institutions supporting Constitutional democracy.”

So what is to be done?      

If we are really to “prevent the failure of the entire system” what must be shed is corrupt, incompetent officials and a slew of politicians.

The writing is on the wall. It is time for good people to distance themselves from bad people; the good ANC to distance itself from the bad ANC; the visionary activists in government from the thieves; the Constitutionalists from the anti-democrats.

Time is running out. DM

Photo: A statue of the late Nelson Mandela is seen during a memorial in Pretoria, South Africa, 05 December 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK


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