Lights Out In South Africa What's Behind South Africa's Energy Crisis?

The South African energy crisis began in late 2007 and Eksom, the state-owned power company, began carrying out multiple periods and phases of load shedding to avoid a total collapse of the grid. However, in 2022, South Africa saw more blackouts than any other year—a record 205 days without electricity.

On 14 February, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that he would appoint a minister of electricity as the country’s blackouts continue worsening and threatening the economy. On 09 February, he declared a national state of disaster during the annual State of the Nation Address to parliament, calling it ‘an existential threat’.

According to Ramaphosa, South Africa is:

…in the grip of a profound energy crisis. The crisis has progressively evolved to affect every part of society. We must act to lessen the impact of the crisis on farmers, on small businesses, on our water infrastructure and our transport network.

When a national state of disaster is declared in South Africa, the Disaster Management Act 2002 assigns responsibilities to the national disaster management centre. This allows the government to carry out actions aimed at protecting lives and property as well as providing relief. The law also enables the government to allocate government resources in response to the disaster. Last year, Ramaphosa lifted a two-year-long disaster declaration, put in place at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 90 per cent of South Africa’s power generation is coal-fuelled and is controlled by state-owned company Eskom, whose coal-fired power stations have reportedly been overused and under-maintained for years. The South African energy crisis began in late 2007; at the time, the TV show Carte Blanche reported that the problem was linked to the supply of coal to the power plants. To prevent the complete shutdown of its supply grid, Eksom began carrying out multiple periods and phases of load shedding—power outages that last a few hours. However, in 2022, South Africa saw more blackouts than any other year—a record 205 days without electricity.

In the past week, Eskom had been alternating between stages 3 and 4 of power cuts during the week, lowering to stages 2 and 3 over the weekend. However, the company has announced stage 4 load-shedding until further notice following the breakdown of generating units at Koeberg, Medupi, Kriel, Arnot and Lethabo power stations. This means that affected areas will have power cuts twelve times over eight days for four hours at a time.

The crisis has already delivered devastating effects on multiple areas of South Africa’s economy including food and water supply. The International Monetary Fund projected that South Africa’s GDP growth would hit 1.2 per cent in 2023, citing power shortages alongside weaker external demand and ‘structural constraints’, but the South African Reserve Bank revised these projections to 0.3 per cent in January.

The escalation of power outages has seen a rapid climb in food prices; according to Statistics South Africa, food and non-alcoholic beverage inflation jumped to 13.4 per cent from 12.4 per cent in December. In January, a farmer lost 50,000 broiler chickens in North West province after the power outages caused ventilation systems to stop and the birds suffocated. The financial damage to the farmer was around $93,300 and he intends to sue Eskom.

The country’s water processing and distribution network has also been affected, with suppliers issuing warnings about damage to infrastructure and operations. In Cape Town, the Water and Sanitation Directorate asked residents to use less water to try and maintain the supply amid prolonged high stages of load shedding. Internet supply is also being disrupted; the Wireless Access Providers’ Association said buying backup power solutions for connectivity would be pointless unless the network providers can keep their systems up.

The outages are so severe that in January, the South African Funeral Practitioners Association warned that bodies were decomposing because of the constant electricity outages and asked families to bury their dead within four days. Coupled with the heavy rains and floods that have displaced over 1800 people and affected seven of the country’s nine provinces, the situation is bleak. In late January, protests were held in Johannesburg and Cape Town over the crisis.

In an attempt to rectify the situation, Ramaphosa announced the creation of a ministry of electricity in addition to the new minister ‘to assume full responsibility for overseeing all aspects of the electricity crisis response’. He said the minister would focus full-time on ending load shedding and ensuring that the Energy Action Plan, announced in July 2022, ‘was implemented without delay’.

He told parliament on 17 February that the responsibility for Eskom would remain with the Public Enterprises Minister and would not be shifted to the Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, despite backlash from lawmakers who said the appointment would add an extra layer of bureaucracy. Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe says the government has begun processes to ensure extra megawatts are added to the grid. These efforts include procuring emergency power from neighbouring countries and private electricity producers.

It is unknown who will take the position of electricity minister but following the announcement of tax incentives for solar power use, many South Africans may consider alternative electricity supply systems for their homes⎈

Recommended Reading

Here are some Republic articles to read for more context on electricity and power supply in Africa:

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].