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Some light despite load shedding gloom

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South Africa was plunged into darkness this week, literally and figuratively, as Eskom announced unprecedented stage 6 load shedding in an attempt to keep the lights on.
by TALI FEINBERG | Dec 12, 2019

After a gruelling day of stage 4 load shedding (12 times over a four-day period for two hours at a time, or 12 times over an eight-day period for four hours at a time), the stage 6 announcement was a cruel blow to the businesses, households, and mindsets of South Africans. The fact that stage 6 quickly reverted back to stage 4 only added to the panic and confusion.

“How do we do this? How do I bake cakes and keep 27 people employed at my bakery?” asked Jacqui Biess. “It’s peak season for wedding cakes, and we need at least six hours of uninterrupted electricity to bake them. Stage 6 would have given us only 3.5 hours. We are losing products as the temperature of our cold room heats up, shelf life is shortened, and dairy spoils quickly. Most of our customers are tourists, and they don’t understand. A generator to meet our capacity would cost close to a million rand and take up half our parking lot, and that’s before paying for diesel. I think a lot of places are going to shut down, and we can’t afford any more job losses.”

Lindy Ann Hoffmann in Johannesburg describes how the power cuts have affected her mental state. “I have panic attacks in the dark. I’m on my own, looking after my father and his sister who are in their nineties. I just bought an inverter, but why should I have to spend R8 000 on that when I pay for electricity?” she asked.

“Besides the economic factors, increased load shedding over the holiday period is a deep psychological blow,” says stockbroker and economist David Shapiro. An eternal realist, he admits that the latest round of load shedding has definitely shaken him.

“In spite of the business community saying things will come right, there’s never been a foundation for that optimism. And now, everyone is silent. My fear is that this [Eskom crisis] has shattered whatever little confidence was left. It’s going to take a massive effort to turn things around. Power drives an economy,” he says.

“Many Jewish businesses have taken a severe pounding against the backdrop of low growth. This year, we contracted in the first quarter, grew slightly in the second, contracted in the third, and we really needed a strong fourth quarter, but this will probably take us into a recession. We can’t catch up with the growth of the rest of the world.”

Furthermore, Shapiro believes there will be severe consequences from mines halting operations because of Eskom’s woes. South African Airways going into business rescue has caused insecurity as the “ecosystem” around it suffers. Added to load shedding, this could only be detrimental to South Africa’s future.

“The government can’t go on like this. It has to change course, and rethink the whole model and economic future of this country. We need to make the best of what we can, but we’ve also got to be real. We have to be outspoken that this isn’t good enough for us.”

Even the optimistic Mike Abel, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Abel, says he’s not blind to how Eskom is failing all South Africans. “The most worrying thing is that we have no actual sense of where we stand. The president needs to level with the country in an honest way. If we do away with this uncertainty, then we can develop strategies and navigate the way forward,” he says.

“We need an independently-verified expert to explain where we are, so that we know if this is a temporary blip or something worse than we can imagine. Furthermore, we need the entire African National Congress to get behind the president. #ImStaying has 94 000 people who want to fix, build, and change South Africa. That’s not sugar-coating things. We want to be here because it’s home. We don’t want to give up on everything we know and love. We need to hold the government brutally accountable now.”

Jacques Weber, a former Democratic Alliance ward councillor in Cape Town, was flooded with concerned messages on social media after the stage 6 announcement. “We are not going the way of Zimbabwe,” he says. “We have a functional judicial system and active civil society to hold government to account. Three weeks ago, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe gave the Western Cape government the go-ahead to explore alternative energy sources.”

Electrical engineer Adam Pantanowitz says that Eskom’s crisis has deep roots. “The apartheid regime didn’t supply power to all South Africans, so when the ANC inherited this system and correctly began supplying power to all, the load was much greater. As government attempted to grow capacity, there were also delays, mismanagement, and corruption.

“There simply isn’t enough capacity, so we are on a knife edge at all times. If anything goes wrong, we feel the effects as consumers. We are under such severe strain, that one simple fault, like wet coal, causes catastrophe.”

Pantanowitz says the ripple effects of substations exploding leads to a “very complex feedback system that cascades into difficulty”. Furthermore, there are too many conflicting variables and agendas at play. These complexities are superimposed over the challenges of just keeping the lights on.

“The only way forward is to unbundle this monopoly, find alternative sources of energy, and start distributing them. Everyone with the means to do so should be taken off the grid using natural resources like solar power, and supply energy back into the grid,” says Pantanowitz.

A punitive approach to citizens using alternative energy is madness, he believes. “Embracing free forms of renewable energy (wind and solar power coupled with batteries to use energy when needed) is the way the world is going. We don’t want coal. Renewables are by no means the panacea to all energy issues, but they should certainly be part of the energy mix and form part of the solution. The whole picture can change if we tap into this resource. South Africa has unbelievable natural resources that we are irresponsibly squandering.”

SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn was optimistic that Eskom could be improved following a statement at the SAJBD conference last month by Dr Reuel Khoza, a past chairperson of Eskom. “A good number of the people who ran Eskom in its heyday are working in the Pacific Basin, Australia, and New Zealand and they are keen to come home, provided you give them the requisite platform to perform and you stay out of it as a political force,” said Khoza.

“There seems to be recognition in past weeks that experience and bold action needs to be brought into all state-owned enterprises to address the current crises, and we hope that Dr Khoza’s wise words are heard,” Kahn said.

Seven tips for surviving load shedding

Here’s the Community Security Organisation checklist for keeping safe in the dark.

  • Make sure that your security system including electric fences, alarms, and panic buttons have battery backups. Check them often to ensure that they are operational, and that the backup batteries work optimally.
  • Ensure you have locks and chains to secure gates and doors that require electricity to work or lock.
  • Make sure that all of your electronics are fully charged including your cell phone and a portable battery pack of at least 10 000mAh capacity.
  • Keep your car’s fuel tank topped up as your local station might not be able to pump fuel during load shedding.
  • Emergency lighting, torches, lamps, and candles are essential for night-time load shedding. Make sure you have spare batteries and lighters on hand or be environmentally responsible and get some solar powered lights. Ensure that rechargeable emergency lights are always fully charged.
  • Invest in a generator to run basic necessities and security systems.
  • Keep a well-stocked first aid kit in the house for any accidents that might occur.

For any security or medical emergency, suspicious activity, or potential threats specifically related to the Jewish community or Jewish installations, contact the CSO 24-hour emergency control room on 086 18 000 18. For crime-related issues and emergencies, please contact CAP or your local security provider.

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