As South Africa’s economy continues to wilt as a result of the continuing economic uncertainties now roiling much of the world, J BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates a ‘what if’ moment in the not too distant future. Perhaps he has been rereading his collection of classic dystopian novels again ...
In mid-2016, during one particularly cold autumn evening, just after the date for the local elections had been officially proclaimed, a cascading power outage struck the country’s largest city. It began in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs at several electric power substations, but eventually it extended clear across the densely populated city centre, and then on into a wide swathe of neighbourhoods across the West Rand, including most of Soweto and nearby areas.
The trouble initially began when a number of those heavy-duty transformers used to step down current from high-voltage transmission lines to domestic distribution faltered and exploded. The special oil used in those transformers had been supplied on an emergency basis (after the usual contractor was unable to comply with supply chain requirements) by a vendor that had sourced the oil off the internet from spot dealers, and the oil that was delivered turned out to be unable to meet the standards needed for the increasingly overworked transformers during this cold weather. Many of the seals used to keep the oil in the transformers cracked as well, and the oil began to leak out of the transformers too.
That might have been an isolated problem repair crews could have dealt with eventually, but the fast-acting circuit breakers used in many of the smaller neighbourhood substations also had a hidden but fatal flaw. These parts had been manufactured in Shandong, China, at the Red Dawn Electrical Manufacturing Corporation. Unfortunately, the company was close to bankruptcy and it had substituted substandard insulators in some of the manufacturing lots. The circuit breakers using those insulators started to fail in the electrical emergency, once a growing number of the remaining substations also began to falter because of the wild gyrations in the overall power supply.
Consequently, a major section of Johannesburg was plunged into darkness, just as people all across the Witwatersrand were turning on all of their home heaters, televisions and lighting, were finishing up their dinner cooking preparations, getting organised to bathe children, or washing those dinner dishes. The call centres were swiftly overwhelmed by angry callers from across the city and beyond, and, soon enough, the cellphone companies were unable to provide connections for that rapidly growing volume of calls – in fact, the largest volume of calls over any one hour since records were kept – before the actual networks automatically shut down to avoid collapse.
Police and private security companies began to increase roving patrols, but, soon enough, the number of break-ins and casual thefts skyrocketed as it became increasingly clear that the usual security measures would be insufficient to keep things under control. The steady hum of generators began to kick in all across the region, but, eventually, too, they started to shut down when their fuel reserves ran out and they could not be refuelled. Most petrol stations and other “informal” fuel sellers could not dispense their products without electrical power, of course.
There was worse news to come, soon enough. The Rand Water Board announced emergency measures when its distribution network and filtration plants also began to shut down, once the fuel reserves of their back-up power sources ran dry as well. Radio stations began carrying messages from the city government that insisted teams were on the scene trying to fix things, but the crisis continued into the next day, and the morning rush hour traffic became a nightmare for commuters, at least those who decided it was worth the effort to attempt to reach their offices, shops, factories and other places of employment. By noon, the executive mayor’s office announced emergency measures to bar individuals, save for emergency personnel, hospital staff and key government staff, from being on the roads, thereby triggering a second wave of traffic chaos that ran well into the late evening.
By the beginning of the third day, when it became clear power would not be restored in full across the Witwatersrand any time soon, sporadic looting began to break out as people began to seek out food for their families – or, more ominously, as crimes of opportunity began to rise too. The country had already been in a sharp recession for the past nine months as real income had been falling, the currency remained on a slow but continuing decline against major trading currencies, and manufacturing and mining production continued to drop.
As a result, a growing number of people had been put out of work over that period and they had become increasingly desperate to be able to obtain basic necessities for themselves and their families. Spaza shop owners gave up throughout the region and even major stores suffered break-ins and looting as electric power remained out in most places. None of these developments did anything positive for the country’s currency, although authorities had already shut down the JSE, given the energy crisis, to prevent a further run on stock prices that might further destabilise the country’s increasingly fragile economy.
But, as power had still not effectively been restored to most areas, ATMs increasingly began to be attacked by small mobs of people, people desperate for access to some cash. Fires, of course, became increasingly hard to control with water supplies now sporadic and underpowered in many parts of the city. Fires in some shopping malls raged on until they burned themselves out or were finally more or less brought under control by neighbours taking matters into their own hands so as to prevent the possibilities of destruction to their own homes in the vicinity.
By the time the crisis had reached day number four, as power began to come back on stream, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, street by street, suburb by suburb, television news, social media and the newspapers were carrying harrowing images of burnt out shopping areas, looted stores, and still-smouldering ruins. These powerful images dominated international news channels, generating yet further downward pressure on the rand – and it soon nudged the R20/$1 mark, and hit similar levels for the other major reserve currencies.
Several international firms that had previously been contemplating investments or plant expansions in South Africa let it be known quietly that they were now reconsidering their earlier planning, given the evident inability of the country’s financial, industrial, and commercial hub to guarantee routine civic services. Even some senior government officials admitted the recent difficulties had disrupted their explanation of that good story to tell internationally, and that it had shaken the confidence of government emergency services managers that they could handle such problems effectively. As a result, further steps were being taken to ensure more success with remaining difficulties – and regardless, the country’s election would go ahead.
Accordingly, the Presidency and the Independent Electoral Commission made an unprecedented joint announcement that the local elections, already scheduled, would go on as planned without fail. The JSE wobbled some more, but eventually it largely stabilised and even the rand steadied some, although it continued to fall about 5 percent more on average against the dollar, yen, euro and pound. In an effort to rally the financial sector, the government let it be known that it was considering asking for support from the new Brics currency stabilisation fund – and perhaps even the International Monetary Fund if it came to that – if there were further, uncontrolled declines. But, as so often happens as a result of such decisions, that announcement triggered additional declines, until the rand finally hit the R28/$1 level.
Meanwhile, election rallies became increasingly unruly affairs as competing youth groups – groups with deeply felt grievances – took to battling in the streets at each other’s events. There were occasional casualties, although no fatalities, until one individual, possibly mentally unbalanced, who was perched on the top floor of a building adjacent to the Library Gardens in central Johannesburg, began shooting with a high-powered rifle at a crowd of demonstrators. His actions killed five and wounded numerous others in the ensuing violence. With that, the restraints seemingly came off across the board. The nation’s political rallies became increasingly dangerous events, regardless of which party was sponsoring a rally or opposing it.
Not surprisingly, the growing political violence led to a further downward kick in the currency’s value; prices for food, fuel and other commodities started to leap upward; and the overall political and economic climate in South Africa guaranteed yet another recessionary quarter. Without exception, all of the country’s opposition parties were plastering the nation’s lamp posts, street signs and trees with variations on the themes, “Now is the time for change!” and “Save the nation – vote for …”
By the time the actual election day dawned, the government had been insisting for some time that public order would be maintained, regardless of whatever trouble might come along and regardless of some elements’ desire to disturb the country’s premier demonstration of democratic practice. But, unexpectedly, the night before the nation’s election day, someone had placed several pipe bombs in provincial offices in downtown Johannesburg.
Although the would-be terrorist had called the police before the devices exploded and the buildings could be safely evacuated and the police bomb squad was quickly deployed and managed to disarm two of the devices, the remaining one detonated. It caused significant destruction to that office building, blowing out the windows on the ground and first floors – and up and down the opposite side of the street as well. No one was killed because the buildings had been evacuated, but the explosion further unsettled things, especially when the resulting shock waves set off the burglar alarms fitted on dozens of parked cars located over a three square block area. It took hours before the last of those alarms was deactivated, thoroughly unnerving an already jittery, on-edge population. Typical newspaper headlines on special editions were riffs on the theme: ‘Beirut on the Highveld’, and the story became one of those message crawlers across television screens around the world, tuned in to the global news channels.
Despite the violence, people did turn out in droves to vote. But, as the election results were being tallied, it became increasingly clear that the African National Congress had decisively lost its majority in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth – as well as several smaller cities. Electronic and social media reports of this increasingly likely outcome brought out rival youth groups yet again and the election reporting centre in Pretoria was even briefly occupied by several competing mobs, causing such damage to the centre that television broadcasts from the building were shut down, although radio stations and the internet continued to carry results reporting.
But it was the arson attacks on Johannesburg’s civic centre tower and several other major public facilities late into the evening, together with the attack on the electoral reporting centre that became the straws that broke the metaphorical camel’s back. The realisation by national officials that regular police forces could not maintain order provoked an emergency meeting of the security cluster. But what the task was remained undecided and unclear. Was it to keep the warring bodies apart, maintain civil order despite the likelihood that there would be large numbers of arrests, or that the task would, ultimately, be to impose martial law and even an unprecedented suspension of the final reporting of results until things were calmer?
As violence continued, a decision was reached in the Union Buildings and a call was placed to the South African National Defence Force’s tactical command that had been on stand-by for several days. The commanding general who answered the phone, simply said, “Yes, Mr President” three times. Then he put down the phone and, in turn, gave his own orders to various officers waiting for his directions. But what had he decided and told his own commanders – and would the military chain of command carry out those unprecedented instructions at such a parlous time in South Africa? DM
In contemplating such possibilities, some readers may wish to read – or reread – Karel Schoeman’s “Promised Land”, Nadine Gordimer’s “July’s People”, JM Coetzee’s “The Life and Times of Michael K”, Jack London’s “The Iron Heel”, George Orwell’s “1984”, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” – or Arthur Keppel-Jones’s “When Smuts Goes”. Just for starters.