South Africa in electricity crisis, nationwide blackouts

JOHANNESBURG – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had scheduled an urgent meeting with his cabinet for Wednesday to discuss the country’s power crisis, which has led to nationwide blackouts in Africa’s most developed economy.

Troubled state-owned utility Eskom, which produces about 95% of the country’s electricity, is conducting scheduled power outages to conserve electricity while struggling to keep its aging and poorly-maintained coal-fired power plants running.

Ramaphosa returned home to chair the meeting with his ministers after attending Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in London. He canceled his trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

Eskom had begun implementing Level 6 blackouts, a level that means businesses and homes are going without power for more than 10 hours a day. The company has since reduced the level to Level 5, which requires South Africans to go up to eight hours a day without electricity.

The blackouts are also affecting other government services, including water supplies in some areas, as electrically-powered pumps grind to a halt.

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As the South African economy is already struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, economists have issued strong warnings about the impact of the power outages.

Eskom imposed power outages – what the company calls load shedding – on a less severe scale earlier in the year, and they were a key contributor to the economy contracting 0.7% in the second quarter, according to South Africa’s official statistics agency StatsSA.

Eskom sometimes reports power outages for only a few hours.

“It’s very difficult to understand what’s going to happen next,” said Jannie Rossouw, an economist at the University of The Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“It is virtually impossible for the general public and businesses in South Africa to plan if Eskom cannot plan its capacity,” said Rossouw.

Almost every sector of the economy has been hit, and South Africa’s largest telecoms companies warned this week that prolonged power outages could affect their services.

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Michele Gamberini, MTN South Africa’s chief technology and information officer, said it is currently using upgraded backup batteries to keep its cellphone towers operational, but that prolonged power outages could result in an outage of services.

“Although we have placed thousands of batteries at our sites across the country, once we pass Stage 4 load shedding, the effectiveness of these batteries decreases sharply,” Gamberini said.

The company has also installed more than 2,000 diesel-powered generators at its sites to help counter the ongoing power outages, it said.

Eskom is in a race against time to procure additional capacity from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar through independent power generators. It has announced a program to urgently procure at least 1,000 megawatts of electricity from the private sector to ease the burden of the blackouts.

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Ramaphosa is facing pressure from opposition parties, who have called on him to sack ministers responsible for state-owned enterprises and the energy sector. His government defended itself by saying it had taken over a dysfunctional Eskom that was at the center of allegations of massive government corruption under former President Jacob Zuma.

“We really regret the way in which our Eskom energy supply is disrupting both our households and the economy,” Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said on news channel Newzroom Africa. “But this is the Eskom we inherited, this is the Eskom we are trying very hard to fix.”

There are already moves by Ramaphosa’s rivals to oust him as leader of the ruling African National Congress at the party’s election conference in December.

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