Why Planned Blackouts Are Just Part of Life in South Africa

South Africa does not suffer from these blackouts due to scarcity.

When driving home from the cricket match, the traffic lights are off.

At the movies, the screen cuts to black in the middle of a climactic scene. The audience reacts with a chuckle of knowing exasperation.

South Africa does not suffer from these blackouts due to scarcity.

These incidents are the result of “load shedding”: a series of planned blackouts that regularly interrupt what are otherwise pleasant South African days. Businesses temporarily halt, phone service is lost, and the personal generators kick on (for those who are wealthy enough to own them).

Though a large percentage of the population lives in poverty, South Africa is not a poor country. In fact, it is quite resource-rich and has the requisite infrastructure to access and distribute those plentiful resources. South Africa does not suffer from these blackouts due to scarcity.

Electricity's History in South Africa

As is usually the case, such pervasive infrastructural inefficiency comes as a result of government control over an economic sector. For decades, competition has been crushed, innovation has been stopped in its tracks, and intense corruption has weaseled away revenues. Today, all that remains is a shell of an energy company, massive state-backed debt… and load shedding. Of course, it is the South African citizen who is shouldering the burden.

Today, Eskom provides over 95 percent of South Africa’s power supply.

In the early 1920s, South Africa had little in the way of electricity, with power limited to large cities and supplied by small local power stations. In an effort to bring electrical power to the entire country, the South African government passed the Electricity Act of 1922. Enter Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned power utility.

With government (read “taxpayer”) funding and political support, Eskom expanded across the country, buying out regional power plants and centralizing the entire power grid. Today, Eskom provides over 95 percent of South Africa’s power supply. For a few decades, Eskom lived off debenture and government-bond funding, building coal-fired power plants to feed the still-limited national demand for power. But that demand was beginning to grow.

Apartheid's Impact on Electricity

Then came apartheid. The motivations behind apartheid were many, varied, and predominantly evil. Racism is a subcategory of collectivism, and South Africa’s reign of apartheid is one of history’s many examples of the devastation wrought by such destructive ideologies. But amid all the atrocity, apartheid was a boon for Eskom. What better way to hide your limitations as an energy provider than to have the government forcibly eliminate the energy demands of the vast majority of the population?

To be fair, Eskom was not in collapse when apartheid began, but its future outlook was grim. Eskom was indebted and had few plans for expansion to meet the growing demand. Apartheid saved Eskom from having to adjust, innovate, and serve a complete population. Initially, power to the white elites could be supported through the existing infrastructure, and revenues were free to be skimmed into crony pockets or slipped into the greasy palms of politicians.

Corruption and inefficiency had left Eskom in massive debt even during the decades of artificially limited energy requirements.

For 40 years, Eskom plugged along, protected from competition by its state monopoly. The white elites wanted to industrialize and globalize, and Eskom was given the funding to facilitate these improvements. Of course, the developments would only support the white-owned mines and the main cities, where 80 percent of the population was not allowed to live. During this time, Eskom was ordered to build the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, mainly to support the South African government’s nuclear program. Koeberg remains the only nuclear power station on the African continent and the only true and lasting innovation from Eskom’s 60-plus years of energy domination.

Then, in 1994, apartheid was abolished.

Millions of long-oppressed South Africans finally obtained their freedom of opportunity, and they had political backing. Eskom was required by the government to provide electrical infrastructure and cheap electricity to long-neglected areas of the country. Corruption and inefficiency had left Eskom in massive debt even during the decades of artificially limited energy requirements, and this influx of demand was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Cycle of Corruption

Since 1994, South Africa has been perched on the precipice of an energy crisis. Eskom’s debt has rocketed to $30 billion (US). They can barely afford the interest payments. Soon, they will enter a debt spiral.

A vicious cycle of government control and corruption is pushing the energy utility further into this purgatory. The African National Congress (ANC)—the party once led by Nelson Mandela, and still South Africa’s ruling regime—demands that electricity be provided to their impoverished voting base, yet they are unwilling to risk the ire of their constituents by raising the fees enough to fund these services. Eskom, in turn, provides limited and poor service, is unable to innovate, and is incapable of maintaining their infrastructure. In order to reduce the workload placed upon their facilities, Eskom instituted load shedding in 2008, which has continued ever since.

Decades of state control, corruption, and apartheid insulated Eskom from the competition it needed to provide adequate energy services to South Africa.

Understandably hated by the population, load shedding has caused Eskom to lose any public support it once held. It has stayed alive through its political connections with the ANC and the bribing of politicians and connected elites, including President Zuma and the infamous Gupta family (see this Vanity Fair article for more). This, of course, exacerbates the company’s inefficiency and debt but keeps Eskom enforced as the country’s sole power provider.

In February 2019, the South African government announced that Eskom would split into three separate companies, all still owned by the state. The goal is to reduce inefficiency and corruption by having each segment focus on a different aspect of the energy process: generation, transmission, and distribution. In reality, this “split” is exactly as it sounds: one company with the same ownership is now giving each of its departments a different name. Eskom responded to this announcement by implementing a heavy round of load shedding.

Decades of state control, crony corruption, and government-enforced apartheid insulated Eskom from the competition it needed to provide adequate energy services to an evolving nation. The excesses of Eskom’s executives and their political partners have built up a massive debt, and the citizens are left to foot the bill.

Corruption in the ANC

Of course, not all of the citizens are being billed equally. Once Mandela’s party of equality and forgiveness, the ANC has devolved into an entity just as corrupt as countless other African governments. The impoverished black population—by far the largest demographic—votes for the ANC out of loyalty, and so the party has near monarchical reign. After years of oppressive rule by a white minority, this may appear to be a power reversal into tyranny of the majority, but in reality, the ruling minorities have just been realigned.

The majority’s lives are not improving, but they continue to vote for their party out of a sense of collectivist belonging.

South Africa has one of the largest wealth disparities in the world by most metrics. Slums (known as “townships”) decorate the outskirts of cities, and muggings and carjackings are commonplace. Interestingly—or perhaps tellingly—the townships (which do receive electricity despite their shack-like appearances) are one of the few areas where load shedding is substantially limited. Nominally, this is to help reduce crime, but it amounts to bread and circuses.

The majority’s lives are not improving, but they continue to vote for their party out of a sense of collectivist belonging. It feels better to be a part of the party of power after generations of feeling powerless. However, the ANC is abusing their trust, functioning only as a funnel to move money from the non-connected productive classes to the well-connected leeches, like Eskom. Until this fundamental problem is addressed, South Africa will continue its long history of poverty and inequality, and it may have to do so in a blackout.

Further Reading

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