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South Africa’s Power Grid Is on the Brink of Collapse

The country's aging power infrastructure is leading to blackouts and lost business — and unless something is done soon, South Africa could suffer a national electricity outage.
Photo by Dylan Harbour

South Africa is on high alert as a surge of power plant maintenance issues have led to a spike in enforced black-outs throughout the country, temporarily depriving millions of electricity and raising criticism of the government's failure to address a longstanding need for more energy infrastructure.

Eskom, the government-owned electricity company which supplies 95 percent of South Africa's electricity and 45 percent of electricity used by the African continent, has admitted that it is currently facing a "risk of collapse of its entire power network."


If that happened, South Africa and portions of surrounding countries could be submerged in darkness for upwards of two weeks.

The country's energy woes began in 2007, after the demand for energy by burgeoning industries like platinum and gold mining caught up with the country's decades-old power infrastructure and led to a series of uncontrolled blackouts.

But last November a coal silo collapsed at an Eskom power facility that contributes 10 percent of South Africa's energy and caused the site to lose 1,800 megawatts of its energy capacity.

Since then, Eskom has attempted to cool its stressed power plants through a process called "load shedding," in which electricity is denied to select regions of the country for hours each day on a rolling schedule.

— Eskom Hld SOC Ltd (@Eskom_SA)November 2, 2014

Eskom first began load shedding in April 2008, but South African residents say the past month seems to be the more turbulent in history.

"Yesterday and today, power was out from 10.30 to 2.30," Ronak Gopaldas, head of the country risk department at Rand Merchant Bank, told VICE News. He has lived in South Africa his whole life.

"If it's now and then, we tend to turn a blind eye and get over it. But now that it's becoming a normal feature, people are increasingly irritated," Gopaldas added.

South Africa is capable of producing more than 40,000 megawatts of energy, making it Africa's biggest electricity producer ahead of Egypt, which is capable of producing 29,000 megawatts. But due to critical defects in energy infrastructure and delays in constructing new power plants, Eksom has only been able to supply 65 percent of its total capacity in recent days, according to local media. Some new power plants, like the Medupi and Kusile facilities, are still only unfinished skeletons years after their planned completion dates.


As of February 8, parts of South Africa had experienced gaps in electricity availability for six consecutive days, offering a contradictory reality to Eskom's statement that this year's surge is less severe than when the energy crisis first hit in 2008, and the utility was forced to load shed for multiple days on end.

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South Africa's national treasury announced in late January it would begin selling off assets to meet Eskom's goal of raising $22 billion to refurbish its decrepit systems and build enough power infrastructure to meet current demand.

The first capital injection from these sales will not take place until the end of June 2015, however, and at an estimated $870 million it is a mere fraction of the capital required to pull South Africa's energy supply out of the hole. Eskom estimates that because of this the country will likely be without stable power until 2018.

Political bodies have reportedly begun establishing emergency plans in the case of a total power grid collapse. South African President Jacob Zuma's office, for example, would relocate the president to an undisclosed location and install soldiers at national banks and government institutions.

The US embassy has also announced it is evaluating its contingency options, although a US spokesperson deflated concerns by noting that every embassy worldwide has a contingency plan within reach.


South Africa's industries, the largest of which is mining, are some of the most affected by long-term power issues. During the 2008 crisis South Africa's platinum mines, which contribute approximately 78 percent of the worlds circulating platinum supply, were forced to shut down their operations. This led to a spike in global platinum costs and even a devaluation of the South African rand.

The recent increase in load shedding is likely to be a focal point of discussion during Mining Indaba, an annual gathering of Africa's mining industry leaders scheduled to start on February 9 in Cape Town, South Africa.

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Small-scale entrepreneurs are also suffering. While most larger companies are able to supplement their open hours with generators, others cannot afford to buy auxiliary power sources at a time when profits are being undercut by sporadic business closures.

"Last Friday we were supposed to deliver some clothes to a client, but we weren't able to finish because from 10.00am to 2.00pm there wasn't any electricity," Vuyokazi Ngalo, a fashion designer who runs a small operation of six employees and a few sewing machines in a Johannesburg township, told VICE News. "We had to reschedule to work Saturday and Sunday, but even Sunday there was another power outage for five hours."

"I can't purchase a generator, but we also can't keep waiting for power to become stable," she said. "It has only been in the past month that we cannot meet our deadlines." Ngalo's business has been operating since 2010.


Ngalo also noted that South African townships, which have long been host to the country's lower socio-economic populations, are less affected by load shedding because electricity demand from those areas places significantly less pressure on the national grid than major business and industry regions.

Anthony Kouderis, who helps create energy plans for Ngalo and other under-resourced South African entrepreneurs through the Awethu Project, says that in past years Eskom's load shedding schedules were hard to plan around because they were consistently inaccurate.

"Sometimes electricity cuts would be announced and then nothing would happen, or it would happen without being announced," he told VICE News. "This has a dramatic affect on the businesses because they can't adapt."

Schedules this year are more reliable because of growing press attention towards the crisis, he notes. But as electricity cuts continue to prevent businesses from operating on normal schedules, small companies are highly endangered.

"For many local entrepreneurs here, business is hand to mouth," he said. "If the business owners don't make money that day, they don't eat that day."

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno

Photo via Wikimedia Commons