South Africa


When energy fails, neighbourliness and generators kick in

When energy fails, neighbourliness and generators kick in
A picture made available on 04 April 2008 shows a family eating their dinner under candle light during a planned power outage the middle class suburb of Parkhurst, Johannesburg, South Africa, 03 April 2008. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

On a desultory Joburg Sunday, neighbours join in a street party to mark the wind-up of summer, but also to ponder a future that is increasingly at risk of existing without kilowatts.

If we didn’t already know it, by now we have all learnt yet again just how dependent we are on a steady stream of obedient electrons marching through a complex network of generators, turbines, high voltage lines, substations, and, finally, electrical lines to each of our individual homes.

When everything works as planned, without giving it much thought, we watch television, make dinner, clean the house, brew coffee (!), communicate with friends, family, and professional colleagues around the globe, and do all the other things that arise out of our civilisation’s near-absolute dependence on this seeming magic of physics.

But sometimes the machine stops. Not quite enough for a reprise of one of those science-fiction stories or films about the day after the system-wide apocalyptic collapse. Nevertheless, there is the bleak, black humour emanating out of our collective experiences nowadays that is beginning to emulate some of the very features of that literary subgenre.

As we all know, South Africa’s power grid is under extreme pressure. There has been a decade or more of poor or no major maintenance, a slipshod, poorly managed (even corrupted) process of building new power plants, corruption and outright theft in the procurement chains, and an absolute failure to plan properly for the future. All of this has left the country positively reeling under the vagaries of a sometimes chaotic, constantly changing schedule of suburb-wide blackouts. (I promise never again to call these by the term “load shedding”. That word is some PR flak’s weak euphemism for an administratively decided-on power cut. Call them what they are from now on! These are power cuts or blackouts.)

In the face of this, some of us have purchased and installed our own emergency backups. These include solar power systems, gas or diesel generators, electrical inverters, vast banks of batteries, and uninterrupted power source boxes. And there are now also shelves of lanterns, paraffin pressure lamps, boxes of candles and those emergency lights that stay permanently charged and that come on when the power goes away.

Yes, there is the inconvenience factor for home electricity users. But it tests the very viability of industry and business – and it has the potential to drive away investors and to convince rating agencies that South Africa belongs in that basket of countries not worthy of serious consideration for future foreign investors or bondholders. And that, in turn, will drive the country’s bond interest level up to the stratosphere, thereby shrinking the government funds available for any and all of the other needs of government. This could be bad.

In our home, this past weekend, a nicely seasoned and garnished roast went into the oven at 10:30 in the morning. We were watching the morning news programmes; reading electronic versions of US newspapers, and scanning a paper version of the newest issue of The Economist. The cats had been fed, our breakfast had been eaten, yet more coffee had been drunk, and we were casually dressed and ready for the rest of our Sunday.

But then, bam, at 12:03, our entire suburb was closed down by one of those rotating, sequential blackouts. (See!) End of roast. And so it was off to a nearby restaurant – one that, by the loud thump-thump sound and the burning smell of it, had a functioning generator sufficient to let them cook lunch for the now-growing, powerless crowd, all looking for a meal.

At least this blackout was during daylight and in the summer. Around three in the afternoon, we started moving a few chairs and garden tables out onto our street. Our house is in a quiet cul de sac, in a fairly modest, middle-class neighbourhood. No ginormous McMansions being built on these plots. It hosts a few retired people, some university lecturers, a freelance journalist or two, and a smattering of business people, civil servants and independent professionals. While it is still a majority white neighbourhood, it is changing, as new families and individuals replace older residents when they buy or rent on our street. In short, it is a neighbourhood metamorphosing into what most people hope South Africa can become.

As we do every so often on our block, we had previously agreed to have a street party that Sunday for which everyone on our block brought an extra lawn chair, some edibles, a beverage or two and a glass. We brought out some trestle tables for the food and drink. There are 20 or so households, in toto, so this can become a nice sized gathering. And so we all did come out and join in, partially driven out of our homes by the lack of electricity. (A side benefit in knowing one’s neighbours is to be able to lend a hand when there is trouble. We recently agreed as a group not to push for a street boom as it would ruin the kind of neighbourly atmosphere we have achieved, even with those ever-present walls.)

Fortunately, the weather was balmy and partially sunny. Under the Syringa trees along our street verge, we nibbled, drank, and talked about the upcoming election and dog training – but most of all, we talked about a feckless, chaotic electricity provider – and who already owns which equipment to supply backup power. Should we all gather on the driveway of someone with a Wi-Fi net and an inverter and ask him for the password? Or perhaps we could form a neighbourhood-sized independent power provider, using solar panels?

As the sun went down, the street lights flickered on, signalling the blackout had passed and we could all go back into our houses and prepare for the work week ahead. But we did so with the awareness that the crisis was definitely not over. It is, after all, one thing to have a street party on a weekend afternoon, at the end of summer; it is another thing entirely to huddle around a small fire on the back porch in the near dark, lit by a pressure lamp, wrapped in blankets in the midst of winter when children are sick, there is food to be cooked, homework to be done, and a work assignment awaits. Of course, other nations have it worse, but we seem to be strapped into a train on a downward trajectory in this one, despite the task teams and emergency situation war rooms.

We now know that Eskom will be shutting off our electricity again and again, at least until there is a management that can manage the power grid; until the defective power plants are fixed and the ones under construction are – finally – finished; the electric transmission cables from Cahora Bassa are fully restored, and the flawed, faulty, over-age reticulation networks in many towns and cities are finally upgraded. And, truth be told, no one in the land can honestly say when this will happen. If ever. DM


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