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The last straw – community reels at Stage 6 load shedding



Load shedding has thrust South Africans into unwanted darkness for up to 10 hours a day, making it the “new normal” much like the horrific COVID-19 pandemic became three years ago.

The Chevrah Kadisha has been particularly hard hit. “The impact on the Chev has been extreme, expensive, and far-reaching,” says Chev Chief Executive Saul Tomson. “We house nearly 1 000 aged and vulnerable residents on our campuses, and when the power is out for up to 10 hours a day, the Chev must continue to provide services.”

It’s important to keep residents safe, Tomson says. “Many are frail. They need light and warmth, and cannot afford to fall and hurt themselves in the dark or be deprived of the oxygen several need to survive. These facilities operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and most residents don’t leave the premises at all, which is why generators have to be used to provide the services they need. However, the cost of running generators is enormous, as are the knock-on effects of those expenses.”

Says Colin Kinnear, the Chev’s group catering and facilities manager, “Running our generators is projected to cost us an additional R2 million this year – an increase of 600% over 2022 figures. This R2 million accounts for diesel only, not for maintenance, extra standby staff, and additional electrical support.” At the same time, as a result of the on/off nature of the load shedding, many generators have broken down.

Kinnear is also concerned about the price of supplies. “For example, we use 4 000kg of chicken each month and have just received notice of an immediate 7.5% increase, which will translate into an additional R250 000 this year for chicken alone. It’s estimated that oxygen will cost an additional 143% in 2023, and vehicle fuel an additional 30%.”

Power interruptions also disrupt the provision of water. “We have no option but to seek costly standby water and energy solutions to protect our residents and support our community,” Tomson says.

The management and staff of the Chev are doing what they can to conserve energy. They have already replaced inefficient lighting throughout the facilities on the Sandringham Gardens and Selwyn Segal campuses with energy-efficient LED lights. “This has contributed to an annual saving of R1.23 million. We’re also exploring alternative energy solutions, but this comes at significant cost,” says Tomson.

“On every front: financial, psycho-social, healthcare, catering, and transportation, load shedding presents enormous challenges for the Chev. Each of us knows how upset we get in our homes when the power is out. I’m always cognisant of how our vulnerable residents must feel.”

The impact on the Chev has been extreme, but the community at large faces discomfort and security risks. For some, it’s about managing time consciously, and seeking new and inventive ways of doing everyday things – only without power.

Eitan Fine, the chairperson of the Community Policing Forum serving Sector 1 Sandringham and a volunteer for City Power, is concerned about security.

An electrician by profession, he says batteries for security systems such as alarms, electric fences, and security gates require a sufficient number of hours to charge correctly, and that the four-hour slots between Stage 6 load shedding shifts are often insufficient.

“Load shedding means that street lights don’t work, and darkness is a further concern,” he says. “At the same time, there’s now a need to upgrade security systems to lithium batteries and buy inverters as a back-up.”

Even those with generators have battled with the unpredictable, unsettling impact of load shedding. Actress Vicky Friedman, who founded Noah’s Art, a non-profit organisation assisting artists struggling during the pandemic, says many productions have experienced power failure while the cast is mid-way through a sentence. “While there might be generators to assist, they can take some moments to switch everything back on, and for an actor immersed in a role or an audience watching, this can be unsettling and detract from the effectiveness of the production.”

Other workplaces have experienced an abrupt turnaround from hybrid and remote models of working to a need to go into the office where there is a generator. Searle Silverman, who works for the Markets Valuations Control Group for Rand Merchant Bank, has had to go into work more often.

His corporation hasn’t been much swayed by load shedding. But, he points out that power outages have a widespread impact as ripple effects dampen the economy and cause feelings of uncertainty and instability.

Silverman is concerned about communal life. “For the Jewish, observant community, traditional Friday night and Saturday meals have become much trickier,” he says. “Somehow, though, we find ways to do things. For example, we recently bought ourselves a gas stove.”

Ward 81 councillor Joanne Horwitz says that she often receives messages of concern that the power is going to be off at the start of Shabbos or during the Friday night meal. With these concerns come pleas to have this changed. “Unfortunately, City Power is at the mercy of Eskom,” she says. “Then, of course, there are those times when load shedding has caused a further localised outage – maybe a fuse has blown when the power came back on or, just as likely, vandals lurking in the area have waited for the power cut to steal valuable cables and fuses, exacerbating the problem.”

At home, “board games, and family conversation” have come back into focus, and many in the community say power outages have made them realise how much they need each other and how much they took for granted.

“It has made us get out the candles and become more romantic,” community member Tammy Asseraf says. “People are engaging with one another in more meaningful ways even though the power cuts are driving everyone mad!”

Though most shuls have generators, the lack of lights on the streets creates a security threat, not least for those walking at night on Shabbos. “We have put out a request for cameras to be installed in the roads around us for heightened security,” says Asseraf, who is involved with a shul in Sandringham.

Having seen first-hand the devastation caused by the pandemic, South African Board of Deputies National Director Wendy Kahn wonders what load shedding’s economic impact will be. “In a country where we should be doing whatever we can to build up small business, it’s this sector that has been hardest hit by the outages,” Kahn says “South Africans have had to deal with so much. Load shedding is the last straw.”

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