As South Africa aspires to assert itself as a prominent player in the Global South, the looming spectacle of scheduled power cuts hovers on the horizon, threatening to plunge the nation into a state of prolonged deprivation, rendering communication in personal and professional spheres virtually impossible.
The telecommunications sector paints a grim picture of a potential scenario that could profoundly affect the lives of South Africans. Dubbed the “Day Zero” scenario, it vividly illustrates how rolling blackouts have the capacity to disrupt the routines and livelihoods of every individual.
Picture this hypothetical scenario: in the midst of an ordinary morning, South Africans across the country embark on their customary routines, unaware of the impending upheaval that rolling blackouts may bring.
Upon awakening to the sound of alarms, we all instinctively reach for our phones, anticipating the usual updates on weather and traffic. However, to our surprise, the screen remains blank. A subsequent attempt to convene on social media under the #NoPower yields no results either. Eskom SePush refreshes to no end, with the rolling blackouts schedule trimmed at 20:00 the previous day.
Growing concern leads us to our emails, in the hope of finding communication from employers or better yet, any communication from local municipalities on the status of electricity — on the other end, a pre-dated timestamp of emails from the previous day.
As panic sets in, we decide to contact colleagues, friends and family for clarification, but phones remain eerily silent, devoid of any signal. Maybe the networks are temporarily down.
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Consideration arises that perhaps one has depleted one’s airtime or data or that the wi-fi hasn’t been paid for the month. This assumption prompts us to check our banking apps, yet they too remain unresponsive without connectivity.
To make matters worse, while preparing breakfast, a sudden realisation dawns: maybe prepaid electricity is running low, and there is no means to replenish it from home.
In a state of desperation, we hasten out of the house to the nearby petrol station. Upon arrival, we are met with queues of cars seeking to refuel. However, attendants are unable to process card payments, cash is scarce, as ATMs are non-operational and pay points are mute.
In this disconcerting scenario, it feels as though South Africa has regressed in time, and the very foundations of routine existence are unravelling in real-time. The mounting collective anxiety echoing through South African households exacerbates the strain on an already delicate network infrastructure.
Gradually, the landscape transforms into a scene of desolation and disarray, as the situation steadily descends into a state of bleakness and chaos.
This nightmare scenario may seem like it came from the script of an apocalyptic dystopian movie, but it is the very real eventuality that South Africa’s telecommunications companies are determinedly fighting to avoid because of the gruelling load shedding that plagues our country.
Telecoms sector under threat
This hypothetical scenario, wherein a collapse of both the digital network and power grid transpires, serves as a cautionary tale emblematic of the challenges South Africa’s telecommunications sector currently confronts.
The recurrent and escalating rolling blackouts are exemplified by over 200 days of load shedding in 2022 and a staggering 19,794GWh (Gigawatt hours) shed by early September of 2023 which already exceeds all the rolling blackouts between 2015 and last year combined. This places immense strain on telecommunication companies.
In a bid to prevent this digital grid collapse and the ensuing ramifications, telecommunication entities are channelling substantial financial resources.
For instance, MTN’s monthly consumption of over 400,000 litres of diesel in 2022 for generator operation; Vodacom’s expenditure of over R4-billion on batteries and generators since 2020; and Telkom’s utilisation of more than 23.1 million litres of diesel in the 2023 financial year, alongside an expenditure exceeding R650-million for network maintenance, serve as prominent illustrations.
Compounding these challenges, as is all too familiar to ordinary South Africans, is the surge in criminal activity during rolling blackout episodes. Criminal syndicates target batteries and cables, resulting in hundreds of millions of rands in additional losses for companies within the telecommunications sector in replenishing or replacing the infrastructure.
This exacerbates the already formidable obstacles faced by an industry struggling to navigate the persistent threat of power disruptions. Despite these adversities, the industry has resisted passing these costs onto consumers, recognising the already burdensome economic conditions experienced by ordinary citizens.
A harrowing parallel to the potential ramifications of a digital grid collapse in South Africa can be found in Venezuela’s experience. In March 2019, persistent power shortages plagued 22 out of 23 states, precipitating the collapse of the country’s telecommunications network.
This left a staggering 96% of the population deprived of internet access for over a week, underscoring the profound impact of such an event. The ensuing economic fallout was substantial, with Venezuela’s economy contracting by a substantial 25% that year.
Rolling blackouts response plan
The gravity of the situation has prompted Icasa to establish a committee to comprehensively evaluate the impact of rolling blackouts on the telecommunications sector. The industry has been eagerly anticipating the insights that will emerge from this endeavour as it seeks to discern the sector’s strategic response to this mushrooming challenge.
Concurrently, efforts by the Association of Comms and Technology to lobby for an extension of the diesel fuel rebates programme to this sector are indicative of the urgent need for governmental support. This programme, currently available to sectors like food manufacturing and mining, enables businesses that do not utilise diesel for transportation purposes to seek relief from the General Fuel Levy and the Road Accident Fund Levy.
As demonstrated by, for example, one recent study, South Africa’s economic trajectory could face an adverse impact of up to $116-billion by 2030 if digital technologies are not sustained.
The significance of reliable connectivity was notably underscored during the Covid-19 pandemic. Consequently, the escalating energy crisis in South Africa not only endangers the telecommunications industry, but also imperils the nation as a whole.
While industry stakeholders are commendably striving to maintain connectivity, lasting solutions necessitate policy adjustments and robust government backing, such as extending fiscal relief programmes like the diesel rebate to fortify the telecommunications backbone.
Reliable and cost-effective digital connectivity is imperative in ensuring that South Africans remain fastened to essential services, economic opportunities, and global networks. Failing to safeguard this critical lifeline would culminate in the nightmarish scenario outlined becoming an unsettling reality.
If connectivity falters and digital services grind to a halt, it is the most vulnerable citizens who will suffer most. It is imperative that the spectre of digital doomsday be averted at all costs. DM
Nomvuyiso Batyi is the Chief Executive Officer of the newly established Association of Comms and Technology. She was previously at the Film and Publications Board (FPB) as the Interim Chief Executive Officer; Head of the Presidential Commission’s 4IR Programme; and in 2020 and 2021 she led the Covid-19 Response Project Management Office for the communications and digital technologies sector.