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Living in darkness: How South Africa's blackout is affecting lives

Cars travel on a normally well-lit section of a freeway during a power outage ...   -  
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Denis Farrell/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

South Africa

If it is dark at the Mfusis it's because of power cuts. The South African family of five now has to enter power cut mode; meaning: rely on battery torches and candles.

The state-owned power utility is implementing scheduled blackouts. and sometimes gives just a few hours notice. Life has become a rush for the Soweto residents.

"We would come back from school, work and then just, you know, catch up as a family, do...prepare supper, help with homework", Duduzile Mfusi, the mother of three explains. 

"But now have to rush everything. What takes priority is your homework and making sure that everybody eats on time before it gets dark. So, we try to at least make sure that by the time load shedding (power outage) hits, everything is done", she adds.

The Mfusis invested in a generator when power outages only lasted for an hour or two during stage one earlier this year. However, running the generator has become too costly.

"Not having electricity for a period of about 4 hours to 6 hours in a day, it's extremely costly because the generator, also, it's not it's not effective for us in terms of finances", Nhlanhla Mfusi, the father, laments. 

"It's extremely expensive because now you're buying petrol for the generator, you're buying petrol for your car because we have to transport the kids back and forth, back and forth. So we can't afford the generator anymore.''

The public power utility, Eskom, produces 95% of the country’s electricity but struggles to to keep its ageing and poorly maintained coal-fired power stations operational.

As a matter of consequence, supply street furniture like traffic lights, public services including water supply, businesses and households are going without electricity for up to eight hours a day.

To all of them, Eskom asks to use electricity sparingly in order to help prevent nationwide blackouts. 

Bad strategy

Economist Jannie Rossouw, thinks the strategy isn't the good one: "Eskom treats its consumers as if they are the enemies. The sense is as if Eskom is shouting at people: 'You use too much electricity, you're in the wrong.'"

"Eskom should again establish its credibility in civil society with the general public so that civil society and the general public can help support Eskom in its engagement with government to help Eskom overcome the limitations on electricity supply that government has put on Eskom", the economist concludes.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa this week cancelled his trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly and returned home after the funeral of the Queen Elizabeth II to chair a meeting with his ministers.

According to the official national statistics agency StatsSA, power cuts -referred to by Eskom as load-shedding- were a crucial contributor to the economy contracting by 0.7% in the second quarter of 2022.

Indeed, just about every sector is hurt, and South Africa's biggest telecommunication companies this week warned that continuous blackouts may start affecting their services.

In July, Cyril Ramaphosa announced energy reforms, urging South Africans to "join in a massive rollout of rooftop solar" and sell the excess to the grid. 

He then announced the government, would use climate funding provided through the Just Energy Transition Partnership to invest in the grid and repurpose power stations that have reached the end of their lives.

Last year, the South African authorities raised the licensing threshold for new embedded generation projects from 1 MW to 100 MW.

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