I am currently eating a can of peas in the pitch-black darkness.
It is the 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 deserves further interrogation, its effect is cuttingly controversial: the enduring legacy of apartheid has made historically oppressed communities particularly vulnerable to the consequences of power rationing.
To give Americans some context, South Africa was internationally ranked as the most economically unequal country in 2018; according to the World Bank’s Gini index, “Poverty remains concentrated in previously disadvantaged areas — areas that were set aside for black South Africans along ethnic lines during apartheid.” The racial lopsidedness of poverty has only continued to intensify with Eskom’s reintroduction of energy rationing.
According to energy analyst Chris Yelland, South Africa’s economy loses R2 billion ($150 million) each day that 2,000 MW are shed. While big franchises can fall back on expensive generators to maintain productivity, 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 rolling blackouts are not only economically corrosive but also physically endangering. Given South Africa’s standing as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, load shedding serves as a particularly potent facet for criminals.
“We already live in fear in terms of the gang violence that is happening. The majority of the community is now watching the load shedding schedule so that they can plan their evenings and also watching when they need to stay indoors because the shootings are that bad,” policing forum chairman Byron de Villiers said.
Dark streetlights are not the only accomplice to crime; security devices like electric fences and surveillance cameras are futile in the face of rolling blackouts.
“When I was mugged, it was during load shedding,” Tess Ashby, an American student living in Woodstock, a city in Cape Town with a history of gang violence, said. She was walking on a main road in daylight, when she 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 ‘cuz of load shedding,” she retold in a private interview. The assault remains undocumented and the culprit remains unidentifiable.
Despite the unquestionable damage of Eskom’s power rationing on marginalized communities, some residences and businesses — particularly wealthy residential and commercial properties — are exempt from 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 constraints on executing load shedding”. Yet, booming businesses and rich homeowners have navigated the fine print to retain power.
The most expensive apartment ever sold in Cape Town City Bowl 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 regulatory reason for exemption, corruption seems like the only explanation for Eskom’s incongruences. 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 have the resources to fight back.
“In my house, when the power goes off, the batteries keep my house electricity on. You can’t even tell load shedding hit,” Blade Brink — a resident of Camp’s Bay, one of the priciest parts of Cape Town — shared. Batteries provide a quiet energy alternative to loud generators, which are banned on residential roads after-hours for noise pollution. The fact that only rich areas can afford batteries further disempowers the South African majority.
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 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 rude 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. With load shedding strengthening the legacy of apartheid, Eskom is not only rationing — but rewiring — 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. It is time to resist social injustices. It is time to flush out load shedding — because after all, load shedding is nasty.
Miranda de Moraes urges readers to keep the lights on.