South Africans struggle in the dark to cope with power outages

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africans are struggling in the dark to cope with escalating power outages that have hit homes and businesses across the country.

Continuous power outages have been experienced for years, but this week the country’s state-owned electric power company, Eskom, extended them so that some residents and businesses have been left without electricity for more than 9 hours a day.

A strike by Eskom workers has added to the utility’s problems, including breakdowns of its old coal-fired power plants, insufficient generating capacity and corruption, according to experts.

Prolonged power outages are affecting South Africans in the southern hemisphere’s winter months, when many households rely on electricity for heating, lighting and cooking.

Businesses large and small have had to shut down for extended periods or spend large amounts of diesel fuel to run generators. Anger and frustration are widespread among business owners and customers over power outages, which Eskom calls load shedding.

The blackouts are here to stay, say experts who warn it will take years to substantially increase South Africa’s capacity to generate power. South Africa mines coal and relies heavily on coal-fired power plants, causing significant air pollution. The country seeks to increase the production of solar energy and other renewable sources.

“The big picture is that we were at least expecting (heavy power outages) this winter,” said energy expert Hilton Trollip. “Eskom told us at the end of last year that there was a chronic power shortage… What that means is that until we have a substantial amount of additional generation on the grid, we will continue to be at risk of load loss in any scenario. So the question is how serious will load shedding be?

He lamented the impact of the blackouts on the economy.

“The most direct economic consequence is when companies have to stop production because they don’t have electricity … whether you have a factory, a travel agency or a store,” said Trollip. “Any time economic activity is interrupted because there is no electricity, that is a direct cost to the economy.”

Power outages are costing South Africa more than $40 million a day and deterring investment, economists say. The economy of South Africa, the most developed in Africa, is already in recession and suffers from an unemployment rate of 35%.

Small businesses in townships, suburbs and rural areas across the country are among the hardest hit by the effects of ongoing blackouts, Trollip said.

Buhle Ndlovu, a nursery school teacher in Soweto, Johannesburg’s largest municipality, said the power outages increased her costs to run the school.

“We serve about 40 children here. We need to feed them healthy meals every day,” said Ndlovu. ”With the rate we charge, we cannot afford to incur additional costs to buy gas for cooking. Load shedding has really made it difficult for us.”

She said it’s challenging to care for children by candlelight until parents come to pick up their children long after dark.

Some stores, however, are getting new business from the power outages, such as Uri’s Power Center, which is seeing strong sales of power generators, batteries and other backup systems.

“I think people should definitely look to become less dependent on Eskom. I don’t think the energy situation is going to take care of itself any time soon,” owner Adam Zimmerman said at his Randburg-area store. “We are all aware of Eskom’s problems and people have several options, whether to invest in a generator to run their business or their home.”

On Friday, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter told a news conference that the crisis was receiving a lot of attention and that he had personally briefed Chairman Cyril Ramaphosa on what the company is doing to keep the lights on.


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