South Africa


Soweto: Eskom’s ‘load reduction’ cuts deep during Covid-19 lockdown

Soweto: Eskom’s ‘load reduction’ cuts deep during Covid-19 lockdown
(Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Soweto households and small businesses have been hit by a double whammy — power cuts and the scourge of Covid-19.

Eskom’s efforts to put its troubled house in order are bringing disruption and hardship to communities around Gauteng. Small businesses in Soweto have been especially hard hit as they also try to contend with fast-spreading Covid-19.

Eskom says it is determined to crack down on thousands of illegal connections in the province. However, this has resulted in blackouts in many areas.

The power utility describes some of these blackouts as “load reduction” — as distinct from “load shedding”.

Many small businesses in Soweto complained to Daily Maverick that they were struggling to make ends meet. The pandemic and lockdown had devastated turnover and a hoped-for recovery was now hampered by the return of regular power cuts.

They said few businesses had received benefits from the government’s Covid-19 relief fund.

The Soweto Business Forum has told Daily Maverick that businesses – especially spaza shops – were falling apart as they battled the double whammy of power cuts and Covid lockdown restrictions.

Speaking to Daily Maverick a week ago, Eskom spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha said: “The power cuts are happening across the high-density residential areas of Gauteng and are a result of Eskom’s conscious efforts to protect its distribution infrastructure from damage caused by illegal connections.

“These illegal connections and other forms of electricity theft cause overloading, which destroys transformers and mini-substations. These explosions occur mostly during peak-demand hours, between 05:00 and 09:00 and from 17:00 to 22:00.”

Thebogo Phiri, owner of Disoufeng, a normally vibrant pub and restaurant in Meadowlands, said the power-outage inconvenience was mostly felt in delivery of goods.

His business is continuing on the downward spiral that began with lockdown, he said.

“In Soweto they normally switch off the power between 5am and 9am. There is normally no challenge during this time because people start making orders from 11am. So the team gets to work at 8 am,” explained Phiri.

“The challenge is when they switch off in the evening from 5pm. The challenge with Level 3 lockdown is that most people have gone back to work, so business starts picking up in the afternoon as people make orders for collection on their way back from work.

“We have had to stop taking orders at around 5pm because the [cellphone] network becomes a problem when there is no electricity. So when our drivers go to deliver they can’t get hold of our clients. When they arrive at the destination it’s dark, and they cannot move around because they are women,” Phiri added.

“We have a pool of ladies who deliver and, with the rise in gender-based violence, they themselves are uncomfortable to deliver in the dark — especially when there is no network.

“They can’t see where they are going in the dark and they can’t get hold of the client. It’s about two hours of wasted business because we close at 7pm, but preparation for closing begins early, around 5pm, as we want to be on time rather than late and make sure our staff is protected.”

He said another challenge was cash flow, with his company always paying it monthly bills on time: “We are fighting the war on two fronts. We are fighting Covid-19 and also having to put up with random power cuts despite judiciously paying our bills.”

Phiri also runs a soup kitchen for indigent people and has installed gas stoves so he can carry on feeding those in need. He vows to keep this service going as his way of giving back to his community.

He is determined to make his main business succeed, too, but admits it won’t be easy.

“We decided to halt business at about 5.30pm because there is a rumour that load shedding will be a daily thing from 5pm in Soweto. It’s just a mess, trust me.”

Malesela Letsoalo, 70, from Dlamini in Soweto, said he would be doomed if he could not sell gas to Soweto residents.

Under normal circumstances, he would be making a killing in his father’s business, especially with the widespread power cuts. However, Covid-19 has meant many people have lost jobs or had their pay cut and cannot spend as they used to. Uncertainty about the future means giving credit to customers is risky.

A frustrating problem for Letsoalo is that his gas pumps are powered by electricity and he cannot fill gas cylinders during blackouts.

“Electricity is hurting us. It’s killing us. And this is not just one or two homes, but many lives are affected by the power cuts,” Letsoalo said.

“We are breadwinners but we are unable to provide for our families. People should be buying gas more now that there is no electricity, but the devastation of coronavirus has cost people their jobs while others have no money because they have not returned to work.

“People need gas but because they are not working we are not getting what we expect in terms of returns. I’ll rightfully place that at Covid-19’s and the government’s doorstep because they have been preaching relief but the money found its way into other pockets,” said Letsoalo.

On Thursday morning, Letsoalo’s workers were busy loading empty gas bottles into a van to be taken to be filled and the place looked busy. But Letsoalo said this activity was nothing compared to the old days before lockdown. 

Eskom told Daily Maverick last week that Soweto residents owed about R20-billion in unpaid electricity bills. Removing illegal connection was one way it was trying to stabilise its system and recoup losses.

However, many people restore illegal connections as soon as Eskom and officials leave areas where they have been working.

The lockdown brought more damage than usual to power lines and other Eskom infrastructure in the Soweto region. When trains resume services, there will be no power on several lines, including on the Naledi and Vereeniging links.

Linah Zwane, 65, of Kliptown revealed that his area sometimes goes for days without power. Kliptown is an illegal connections hotbed, with the local train station and surrounding rail lines a hub for connections — with bunches of exposed wires posing a real danger to commuters.

Zwane was pessimistic: “The coronavirus will overcome us. If we have no electricity, and we are told coronavirus thrives in cold conditions, it means we have been left to die.”

Deputy President of the Soweto Business Forum (SBF), Palesa Kambule, told Daily Maverick that businesses were falling apart as they battled the double whammy of power cuts and Covid lockdown restrictions.

“Trying to run businesses under Level 3 without power for five days has been horrible.”

Before the lockdown, it was very difficult with non-stop loadshedding, said Kambule. Businesses involved in sanitisers, manufacturing of masks, and those in farming got essential services permits, but the rest of the businesses faced serious problems.

Said Kambule: “Level 4 was a battle for survival for most businesses, especially spaza shops. They lost a lot from level 5.”

Kambule said that businesses under the forum did not receive the promised assistance from the government, and were battling to recover from the setbacks of the hard Level 5 lockdown.

 “And, now under Level 3, it’s just worse. What exacerbated the situation is that many Soweto businesses didn’t get permits to open up shops. Now our members will be calling us and asking when electricity will be back.”

Kambule said that member businesses who were manufacturing masks and aprons faced delays due to load reduction, with work that should take two days to complete sometimes extending to two weeks.

On Thursday 25 June, Deputy President David Mabuza told parliamentarians that Eskom was doing well but renewed nationwide load shedding might be on the cards.

The power utility said it had recently lost four units at its power plants and this might exacerbate, leading to shortages. Currently it was implementing “load reduction” in certain areas, not load shedding. DM


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