JOHANNESBURG—Energy analysts say that South Africa’s entire electrical grid is in danger of collapsing, as an energy crisis that began in 2008 is plunging the continent’s most technologically developed nation into an economic stagnation that’s been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the past two weeks, Eskom, the country’s national power company and the largest power producer in Africa, has battled to turn the lights back on following extended periods of what South Africans have come to know as “load-shedding.” When the ailing electrical network comes under severe pressure, the utility switches power supplies off in stages across the nation of 60 million people in order to “shed load,” in a desperate attempt to ration dwindling “emergency reserves.”
Eskom generates 95 percent of the electricity used in South Africa, but it has acknowledged that only two of its 13 power stations are generating the levels of electricity required to power the country.
“Years of neglect, corruption, mismanagement, and failure to do essential equipment maintenance and upgrades are catching up with Eskom,” Ted Blom, an independent energy analyst and former Eskom manager, told The Epoch Times. “Unfortunately, the whole country’s now paying the price, and this catastrophe is a long way from over.”
Local economists have calculated that the economy lost R25 billion ($1.7 billion) because of power outages over the past two weeks. Eskom has blamed the latest wave of blackouts, which in some areas have lasted 14 hours per day, on equipment breakdowns and “unforeseen trips” at power stations.
Citizens of all classes, colors, and creeds are united in anger and frustration.
Ruth Ntutu, 63, owns a small butchery in Alexandra township in Johannesburg. The R2,000 ($133) profit that she usually makes every month, together with a paltry government grant, is her only regular income.
“I’m sick of this!” Ntutu said, amid the third four-hour power outage of the day. “I don’t have money to buy a generator to keep my fridges on. If the electricity goes away for a long time, the meat starts to go bad, and the customers stay away.”
She said she voted for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party in the 2019 national election “because the party promised to support small businesses” such as hers.
“Is this the way they help us?” Ntutu asked. “By cutting our power all the time? They are bankrupting us!”
Across the city, in the industrial wasteland that is Germiston, Norman Edwards, 47, has a lot more money than Ntutu. But his engineering business is suffering as well.
“The diesel generators I have will keep the machinery working for about two hours,” he said. “Anything longer than that, it’s downtime, and I have to send my workers home. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve lost because of this load-shedding.”
Edwards said if the blackouts continue, he’ll have to begin retrenching some of his employees.
“That will be heartbreaking. My guys have walked a long way with me in this business,” he said.
According to Iraj Abedian, one of South Africa’s leading economists, the country has heard the government promise to end the energy crisis for 14 years. In that time, Eskom has been plundered by corrupt officials, and its power stations are paralyzed by a lack of maintenance.
“That’s a huge betrayal of this economy and this society,” Abedian, who advised the government of Nelson Mandela on financial policy between 1994 and 1998, told The Epoch Times.
When Jacob Zuma became president in 2008, he began appointing political allies with little to no management experience to lead key state-owned enterprises (SOE), including Eskom.
“Their job wasn’t to run SOEs efficiently. Their job was to loot state-owned enterprises on behalf of Zuma,” said David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, a civil society group.
Zuma’s so-called state capture project ran for almost a decade, until the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, deposed him as ANC leader at the party’s elective conference in late 2017; Zuma was pushed from the presidency in favor of Ramaphosa. Zuma has denied all allegations of graft against him, but will go on trial within the next few months on charges that include corruption, fraud, racketeering, and money laundering, related to an arms deal in the mid-1990s.
Eskom was one of the “main casualties” of state capture, according to Blom.
One of Zuma’s alleged lackeys was businessman Matshela Koko, appointed by the former president as Eskom’s chief executive in late 2016, the supposed zenith of state capture.
Koko resigned in early 2018, shortly before Ramaphosa fired most of the utility’s senior managers, as they had been linked to corruption and maladministration.
However, Koko claims that he was an “excellent” manager.
“My team executed the most maintenance in the history of Eskom,” he said. “We kept the lights on. If state capture means those things, then I’m happy to be linked to state capture.”
Blom said Koko did indeed “keep the lights on”—by burning millions of liters of diesel fuel in order to keep the turbines turning. Koko has denied doing this.
Another energy analyst, Chris Yelland, said Eskom’s current leadership and the government are “fighting a war that can’t be won.” He said the utility’s power plants are now in such a poor state that they may as well be “scrapped.”
“We’re left with old plants that have to be pushed to [their] breaking point. There’s inadequate reserve generation capacity. So, as they switch off units to do essential maintenance, it means there’s less available in generation capacity and not enough reserve, and so they’re forced to plunge large parts of the country into darkness,” Yelland said.
Abedian said the sooner that the Ramaphosa administration stops focusing on Eskom, the faster that the crisis will be solved.
“Almost 60 percent of [the] generation capacity of Eskom should’ve been retired 10, 15 years ago,” he said. “So, what are we doing throwing money at broken machinery? If we spend the same money subsidizing firms and households to finance their own energy generation, as many countries have done, within three to five years, we’ll solve the problem. And Eskom will focus on what it can do, which will be about a third of what it is now obliged to do.”
The economist wants the government to use small, private, independent power producers who use wind, sun, and natural gas to generate electricity.
“It’ll cost us less, it’ll be a lot more efficient and a lot more reliable,” Abedian said. “And they mustn’t come with stories like, ‘It takes a long time for renewable energy projects to kick in.’ So what? We must move, now, because it’s already too late.”
At the recent COP26 international climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Ramaphosa announced that he had secured $8.5 billion from developed countries to “transition” South Africa away from burning coal to generate electricity. He has pledged that the country’s coal-fired power plants will be “decommissioned” over the next 15 years and replaced by “green energy.”
South Africa is the 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mostly because of its power stations. In 2019, it released 1.6 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the air, making Eskom the largest global emitter of sulfur dioxide in the energy sector.
But the country’s move away from coal has many opponents—including mining unions who fear widespread job losses and powerful businesspeople connected to the ANC, who make millions of dollars fulfilling coal contracts every year.
“These interest groups have cashed in because they’re keeping a dying Eskom alive,” Abedian said.