South African president declares ‘state of disaster’ over power crisis

As South Africa suffers daily power outages of up to 10 a.m., President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday declared a nationwide “state of disaster” to deal with an electricity crisis if serious that day-old chicks are freezing to death, supermarket owners are rushing to sell meat before it spoils and many businesses have been forced to close.

Power outages, caused by an aging fleet of coal-fired power stations that the dysfunctional state power company, Eskom, is struggling to keep online, have been a part of life in South Africa for nearly 16 years. But the past few months have been the darkest yet.

Last year there were more than 200 days of service interruptions, the most on record.

“We are therefore declaring a national state of disaster to respond to the electricity crisis and its effects,” Ramaphosa said in his state of the nation address. “The people of South Africa want action; they want solutions.

From big industries to mom-and-pop shops, scores of businesses have closed or laid off workers in a country where one in three people are already out of work. With blackouts driving up the cost of doing business, the prices of everyday consumer goods have soared, as has the frustration of a population losing faith in the government’s ability to secure their future.

The power cuts have consumed the president and his party, the African National Congress, which had promised to revive South Africa’s flagging economy.

Political opponents and civic organizations have staged large street protests and taken the government to court for failing to meet its constitutional mandate as the blackouts have disrupted commerce, education and health care.

Despite the dramatic declaration of “disaster”, effective immediately, Mr. Ramaphosa offered no new plan to end the crisis. He said he was appointing an electricity minister and the declaration would allow the government to fast-track energy projects and exempt food producers and other critical industries from power cuts.

For all the political bluster, the crisis is playing out in life’s most mundane rituals, in places like Meyerton, a town 34 miles southwest of Johannesburg surrounded by farms and factories.

At Foodzone, a corner supermarket just off the main road, when the clock struck twelve on a recent day, the music abruptly stopped, the fridges stopped humming and the fluorescent lights went out.

“Oh, see, there it is,” said store co-owner Karina da Silva.

It was the second power outage of the day and the refrigerators were as hot as a cupboard. Ms da Silva and her husband, Eddie da Silva, searched packets of sausages, chicken and hamburger patties, checking their best before dates. Mr da Silva turned on a generator to run cash registers, and supermarket cooks fried thawed meat on a gas burner to sell at a discount to customers whose home cookers would be useless during the blackout . The store has removed most of its egg dishes from the menu.

“You don’t want a rotten egg in your store,” Mr. da Silva said, slapping his nose.

Firing their already meager staff of 14 would make it impossible to run the store, and the da Silvas are unsure how they will survive.

“I don’t think things will change for us; it’s not going to get better,” Ms da Silva said.

Since 2007, blackouts have become so common that Eskom, the national electricity supplier, has come up with a schedule to cut power to different neighborhoods at different times. He calls these periods of national frustration “load shedding.”

Eskom’s problems are the result of a century of mismanagement, energy and economics experts said in interviews. During apartheid, the utility, which primarily supplied the country’s white minority, subsidized the cost of electricity for large industries like mining, meaning many lucrative businesses were not paying their fair share.

This legacy of low tariffs continues to hamper Eskom’s ability to cover basic costs like maintenance, said Jesse Burton, a researcher with the University of Cape Town’s Energy Systems Research Group.

When the ANC came to power in 1994, it failed to expand public service at a time when the fleet was beginning to collapse under rising demand and falling revenues. Corruption and incompetence in building new power plants only made matters worse. Mismanagement by successive presidential administrations hampered Eskom until it collapsed.

“It’s an institutional failure on every level,” Ms. Burton said. “They’re in a debt spiral, and they’re in a maintenance spiral.”

Since taking office five years ago, Mr. Ramaphosa has created a far-reaching strategy to save Eskom. It included a plan to repair existing power plants, introduce renewable energy and allow private companies to generate electricity.

But the plan produced few visible results. Those tasked with solving the problem are bitterly divided. Gwede Mantashe, South Africa’s energy minister and one of Mr Ramaphosa’s top aides in the ANC, in December accused André de Ruyter, Eskom’s chief executive, of trying to undermine the ANC-led government.

Mr. de Ruyter, hired by Mr. Ramaphosa to save Eskom, resigned a week later. He said in an interview with the Financial Times that someone tried to assassinate him by mixing his coffee with cyanide. Eskom declined to comment on the allegation, and Mr. de Ruyter did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The fatal flaw in Mr Ramaphosa’s efforts to save Eskom is that he tried to do too many things at once, said Khaya Sithole, an economic analyst in Johannesburg. His plan, like those of previous administrations, failed to focus on the fundamental challenge: maintenance.

“Maintenance is not a new project, so if it’s not a new project, you’re not going to have a PR exercise where you cut a ribbon,” Mr Sithole said.

Analysts say solving the energy crisis would require bold moves, like going into debt or implementing a tiered tariff system in which the poor are subsidized while big business pays more.

“The people who will suffer the most from all these problems are the poor and marginalized, and that is where the seeds of a social revolution are going to be sown,” Mr Sithole said.

However, the electricity crisis has produced winners. During blackouts, copper thieves ripped out wiring to sell, leaving neighborhoods without power for days. In Meyerton, a general supply store is trying to capitalize on the need for alternative energy sources by selling solar panels alongside dog food and laundry detergent.

Yet, above all, there is suffering.

Prolonged power cuts threaten food supplies. The South African Poultry Association and other farm groups have been lobbying the government to exempt them from load shedding, said association director Izaak Breitenbach.

In December, KFC announced that it was temporarily closing some of its stores due to a shortage of chicken. The price of chicken in stores has increased, as well as that of eggs and other foods. Public attention turned to the farms when images of hundreds of dead birds began circulating on local news and social media.

With heaters turning off during power cuts, some chicks freeze.

Recently, at a small farm outside Meyerton, Dawit Goji picked up two lifeless chicks from a pen inside a concrete building, chasing the hundreds chirping around them. The power had gone out early that morning, and a group of chicks had rushed to a corner of the building in an attempt to stay warm.

Mr Goji, who is raising chickens for the first time this year, bent over a chick lying on its side.

“He’s about to leave,” Mr. Goji said, patting the chick.

Jean Eligon contributed reporting from Johannesburg.


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