South Africans struggle with power outages in the dark

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africans are struggling in the dark as mounting power outages have hit homes and businesses across the country.

The ongoing power outages have been around for years, but this week the country’s state-owned utility, Eskom, extended them, leaving some residents and businesses without power for more than 9 hours a day.

A strike by Eskom workers contributed to the utility’s woes, including outages at its aging coal-fired power plants, insufficient generation capacity and corruption, experts said.

The ongoing power outages hit South Africans during the southern hemisphere’s winter months, when many households depend on electricity for heating, lighting and cooking.

Farms large and small have had to close for long periods or spend large sums on diesel fuel to run generators. Anger and frustration are rampant among business owners and customers over the power outages, which Eskom calls load shedding.

Power cuts will continue, say experts, who warn it will take years to significantly increase South Africa’s power-generating capacity. South Africa mines coal and relies heavily on coal-fired power plants, resulting in noticeable air pollution. The country wants to increase electricity generation from solar energy and other renewable sources.

“The big picture is that we at least expected (major power outages) this winter,” said energy expert Hilton Trollip. “Eskom informed us late last year that there was a chronic power shortage… This means that until we have a significant amount of additional power generation on the grid, we remain at risk of load shedding at each stage.” The question then is how strong will the load shedding be?”

He lamented the effects of the power outages on the economy.

“The most direct economic consequence is when companies have to shut down production because they don’t have electricity … whether you have a factory, a travel agency or a store,” Trollip said. “Whenever economic activity is disrupted because there is no electricity, it is a direct cost to the economy.”

The power outages are costing South Africa well over $40 million a day and discouraging investment, economists say. South Africa’s economy, the most developed in Africa, is already in recession and suffers from an unemployment rate of 35%.

Small businesses in the country’s townships, suburbs and rural areas have been hit hardest by the impact of the blackouts, Trollip said.

Buhle Ndlovu, a teacher at a kindergarten in Soweto, Johannesburg’s largest community, said the power outages have increased her costs of running the school.

“We take care of about 40 children here. We have to feed them healthy meals every day,” Ndlovu said. “At the price we charge, we can’t afford to incur the extra cost of buying gas so we can cook. Load shedding made it really difficult for us.”

She said it was a challenge looking after children by candlelight until parents picked their children up well after dark.

However, some businesses are gaining new business from the blackouts, such as the Power Center in Uri, which is seeing brisk sales of power generators, batteries and other backup systems.

“I think people should definitely try to rely less on Eskom. I don’t think the power situation will resolve itself any time soon,” said owner Adam Zimmerman at his Randburg store. “We all know Eskom’s problems and people have different choices whether to invest in a generator to power their business or their home.”

On Friday, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter said at a news conference that the crisis was receiving serious attention and that he had personally briefed President Cyril Ramaphosa on what the company was doing to keep the lights on.