I am currently eating a can of peas in pitch-black darkness. It is my seventh hour — without power — today. This South African energy apocalypse is called load shedding … and yes, load shedding is even nastier than it sounds.
For up to eight hours a day, the power provider for 95% of South Africa — Eskom — cuts electricity in cities, suburbs, and villages when it cannot meet the nation’s demand for energy.
Although Eskom has halted rolling blackouts for the past few years, power rationing resurged at the end of 2018. The energy utility blames the sudden comeback on “coal shortages” and “unplanned maintenance,” though the 1,000+ cases of corruption against Eskom employees stand to challenge the credibility of Eskom’s claims. While the cause of load shedding calls for further interrogation, its effect makes it clear that apartheid is hardly over.
South Africa was ranked the most economically unequal country in 2018. According to the World Bank’s Gini index, poverty stays concentrated in formerly disadvantaged areas – where South Africans of color were forced to live during apartheid. The racial lopsidedness of poverty has only continued to intensify with Eskom’s reintroduction of energy rationing.
South Africa’s economy loses R2 billion ($150 million) each day that 2,000 MW are shed. While big business can resist blackouts with expensive generators, small businesses are beaten and blinded by Eskom’s cons.
Toni Burton owns Zizamele Ceramics in Masiphumelele, a traditionally Xhosa township in southern Cape Town. She and her nine employees depend on the making and selling of handcrafted pottery to feed their families. However, the recent and frequent load shedding cycles prevent Burton’s electrical kilns from completing a firing cycle, leaving her small shop under-stocked.
“We may need to resort to going to the studio at night to switch the kilns on after load shedding ends at 20:30 and before the 10:00 one begins,” Burton said. “But it’s dangerous to travel in Masiphumelele at night.”
Eskom’s blackouts are not only fiscally harmful, but physically too. Without power, streets are dark and safety devices like electric fences and security cameras are useless. Given South Africa’s standing as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, load shedding enables even more crime than usual.
“We already live in fear of the gang violence that’s happening,” Cape Town policing chairman Byron de Villiers shared in an interview. He said many people in the city are closely following the load shedding schedule to plan when to stay indoors.
While walking on a main road in daylight, Tess Ashby, an American student at the University of Cape Town, was pushed against a wall and threatened with a rusty knife.
“I ran to the nearest superstore for surveillance footage … but the cameras stopped working [because] of load shedding,” she shared in a private interview. The identity of the attacker has not been identified.
Despite the damage of Eskom’s power rationing on marginalized communities, some residences and businesses — particularly wealthy properties — remain unaffected by load shedding.
South Africa’s regulation NRS048-9 excludes certain areas from power rationing if any of the following are threats: “civic safety, environmental security, damage to plants for critical national product, and constra ints on executing load shedding.” Booming businesses and rich homeowners have navigated the fine print to retain power.
The most expensive apartment ever sold in Cape Town was purchased for R22.5 million in Higgovale, a wealthy suburb in the Central Business District. Load shedding does not hit houses in the CBD because these properties supposedly “share a dedicated circuit” with big businesses nearby. Since commercial loss is not a reason for exemption from energy cuts, corruption seems like the only explanation. Realtors on sites like Re/Max use this scam to boost property values, highlighting Higgovale homes as “unaffected by load shedding.”
Other wealthy neighborhoods that are hit with Eskom’s wrath can fight back. While loud generators are banned on residential roads after-hours for noise pollution, expensive batteries provide a quiet energy alternative.
“In my house, when the power goes off, the batteries keep my house electricity on. You can’t even tell when load shedding hits,” Blade Brink, a resident of Camp’s Bay, one of the priciest parts of Cape Town, shared.
As a foreign exchange student, I was left in the dark. My house of international students did not have batteries, nor generators, nor even an explanation. While we struggled with unsaved essays, unanswered calls , and unwashed clothes, load shedding left us with more than vain inconveniences and dirty jokes: it was our introduction to the scathing socioeconomic inequality of South Africa.
Power rationing enables rich homeowners and corporations to shine ever – brightly against their pitch-black neighbors, who face increasing blows to business, safety, and justice. As load shedding continues to strengthen the legacy of apartheid, Eskom is not only rationing — but wiring — power in South Africa.
Race-linked exploitation has a fervent pulse in the United States, with a parallel power crisis having struck California in 2000. Enron, the U.S. equivalent to Eskom, enacted a series of synthetic blackouts to sell power at premium prices. The California electricity crisis cost the U.S. economy over $40 billion and 1,300 Californians their careers — with marginalized Americans taking the heaviest blows.
From Cape Town to California, power disparities will only continue to globalize … so long as we stay in the dark. It is time to widen the aperture of social consciousness, resist injustices, and flush out load shedding — because after all, load shedding is nasty.
This article was updated 3/3/2021 at 11:30am PST.