Eskom Se Push

Harry Stopes

South Africa has for some years been subject to scheduled power cuts as a way of dealing with a lack of electricity generation capacity. The ‘load shedding’ is staggered across the country to spread the burden, and the extent of it varies according to national demand, as well as with changes in the power supply caused by both scheduled and unscheduled maintenance in the country’s ageing, mainly coal-fuelled power stations.

In the 1990s power generation comfortably exceeded demand and financial costs for Eskom, the national electricity provider, were low. But consumer price increases were held below inflation at the urging of the new ANC government, and a programme of rural electrification widened access from around one third of households in 1990 to nearly 90 per cent today. Investment in new generation capacity to meet the growing demand was not forthcoming: without it, the authors of a 1998 Energy Policy White Paper warned, South Africa would run out of power in 2007, which was indeed the first year that the country experienced load shedding.

The consequences of underinvestment have been exacerbated by corruption, especially during the presidency of Jacob Zuma. Eskom has had twelve CEOs since 2010. There are reports of theft and sabotage for financial gain, including the replacement of high quality coal with inferior material, sometimes mixed with rocks, which damages the power stations’ coal mills. Two new coal-fired mega plants commissioned in 2007, Medupi and Kusile, are way over budget and still not running at full capacity. Eskom is heavily indebted and reliant on additional government funding. The organisation is in ‘terminal decline’, according to Anton Eberhard, the director of the Power Futures Lab at the University of Cape Town, and a contributor to the 1998 White Paper.

Cuts in the first four months of 2023, measured in gigawatt hours, were bigger than for the whole of 2022, which was 4.5 times worse than 2021. Last month Eskom presented the outlook for June to August. In the best case they anticipated ‘stage five’ shedding, equating to eight hours a day without power for everyone, and in the worst ‘stage eight’, or twelve hours a day. Unless you’re lucky – like my friend in Johannesburg who lives between two hospitals and therefore never experiences cuts – it will be a tough winter. (To be fair, performance so in the last few weeks has been better than expected, but unplanned outages remain high, indicating that Eskom’s structural problems persist.)

On the second day of a recent research trip to Cape Town, hoping to watch Manchester City in their FA Cup semifinal, I was told by a friend to download ‘EskomSePush’, an app that trawls through the confusing and frequently changing information from Eskom to provide up-to-date information about outages in their area via push notification. (The name is a foul-mouthed Afrikaans pun: ‘Eskom se poes’ would mean ‘Eskom’s cunt’.)

The app gives you a superficial feeling of control at first, if you have the means and flexibility to take advantage of it. You can make sure to have your breakfast before the morning cut, or remember to charge your phone ahead of an evening outage. Information only goes so far, however: adaptation requires resources, which – news flash – are unevenly distributed.

Some adaptive measures are simple and relatively cheap, such as rigging a home wifi router to a battery that will keep the network on during outages and recharge when the mains power comes back on. You can get other low-powered items like light bulbs with the same feature. For those looking for more comprehensive home coverage, imports of solar panels and large lithium batteries are at all-time highs. One person I know in Cape Town recently installed a set on his roof that should provide enough power for everything but the electric oven: it cost about nine and half times the average monthly South African salary. Though few private homes have petrol generators, plenty of bars do (like the one where I ended up watching the Man City game).

Wealthy South Africans are used to finding private solutions to state dysfunction: security, healthcare, schooling, transport etc. Like all retreats from the public realm, these efforts may reduce the pressure on public services in the short term but they also hasten their erosion. In any case, the electricity problem can’t be resolved at a household scale: new mass generation capacity is needed, a challenge made more complex by the simultaneous need to decarbonise. South Africa is the world’s fifth largest coal producer, with reserves that would last another two hundred years: some voices (including the coal lobby, unsurprisingly) have called for continued coal generation in the name of energy sovereignty. Others point to the potential of offshore natural gas fields.

When it comes to renewables, there’s obvious room for improvement in solar power, which currently produces only 4.2 per cent of South Africa’s electricity, less even than the United Kingdom (4.7 per cent) and far less than the world leader, Spain (nearly 20 per cent). There have been some moves to expand capacity, particularly in the Northern Cape, which has the best conditions for solar generation, as well as low opportunity costs thanks to the land being less developed for agriculture. The Norwegian firm Scatec is building one of Africa’s largest solar and battery storage plants there at a cost of $962 million. It isn’t enough to expand production, however: investment is also needed to improve capacity to transmit the generated power to more populous regions.

Debates about the scale and source of new power generation facilities are related to ideas about the future role of Eskom. Some experts, including Eberhard, favour increased private generation, with regulations to protect consumers. They see Eskom’s role gradually receding, and transmission, generation and operation of the consumer market being disaggregated. (Eberhard argues that the power grid itself, a natural monopoly, should remain in public ownership).

Investment under the government’s Renewable Independent Power Producer Programme (REIPPP) has attracted some of South Africa’s biggest asset managers, financial services groups and banks, including Stanlib, Old Mutual and Standard Bank. Eberhard argues that the distributed nature of wind and solar mitigates the risk of concentrated ownership, and that competition between multiple generators will keep prices low, pointing to the low unit prices achieved to date through the REIPPP, which operates through a competitive bidding process.

Competition between generators will not reassure anyone concerned by the consequences of private ownership of national economic assets in general. For all the success of REIPPP so far, Eskom continues to generate around 85 per cent of the electricity in South Africa; its potential withdrawal from this role represents a retreat from the idea of the developmental state.

Eskom Transformed’, a report produced in 2020 by the Alternative Information and Development Centre in co-operation with the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, warns against the threat to democratic accountability posed by the growth of a power generation sector owned by asset managers. Instead it calls for a politically (as opposed to financially) driven restructuring of Eskom’s debts and the development of ‘a modern national power utility’ supported by government rather than operating under the quasi-commercial conditions imposed during the last years of Apartheid. Only under such conditions, they argue, can the transition to renewables be ‘democratic and just’.

Load shedding is a rare example of a problem that afflicts all South Africans, more evenly distributed than violent crime, of which the wealthy are very afraid but from which the poor – especially African non-nationals – are most in danger. A consequence of political choices, underinvestment, corruption and the cost of servicing debt, the power cuts are a synecdoche for the broader failure of the post-Apartheid state and economy to meet the needs of most citizens. It’s almost tempting, a friend told me in a candlelit bar, to celebrate load shedding as a reminder to his wealthy countrymen that they cannot live completely separate from the rest of society: ‘Welcome to the country you actually live in, basically.’