Loadshedding – An African phenomenon

I recently returned from two months in South Africa where one of the dominating factors was ‘loadshedding’ – ‘Have you downloaded Eskom se push?’ I was regularly asked. ‘You need to plan your day around loadshedding, especially when visiting the archive.’ Well, it was easier said than done on many an occasion. I would leave one place in darkness (no electricity) only to arrive at the next place some half an hour’s drive away, to be in darkness there. Planning seemed pointless to a large extent. It was time to implement project ‘African Adventure’. This had stood us in good stead travelling elsewhere on the continent – effectively, it’s a go-with-the-flow approach and make-do, as the Afrikaans would say – ‘maak ‘n plan’ or make a plan. So, providing there was hot water for coffee, I wasn’t too perturbed. Watching and experiencing how people reacted to the situation and our African Adventure approach was insightful – and again highlights the wealth divides in the country. I should also point out that loadshedding is not unique to South Africa. We experienced it regularly in Tanzania, had it on our visit to Ghana years back and during 2021, I heard a previous President of Sierra Leone talk of it being common in that country too.

The reasons for loadshedding appear numerous: mismanagement (linked with corruption) often being touted as the main reason, selling electricity onto other countries to boost national income, theft of cables especially copper for sale on the illegal market, and sabotage to undermine the ruling party’s position. Take your pick.

While in the other countries mentions, there did not appear to be any distinguishing between who was loadshedded and who not, in South Africa, depending on one’s location, determined the extent to which one was loadshedded. The National Archive in Pretoria, being within the same grid as the Union Buildings (government administrative centre) and various other government buildings suffered no loadshedding, whilst the military archive in Irene, 20 minutes away, was regularly loadshedded. While there was sufficient light in the reading room to continue working, getting files out of the repositories was a challenge – staff being reliant on phone torches to locate the required document (budgets are extremely tight). Areas where police stations were found also seemed to escape loadshedding, although not hospitals – they were reliant on generators.

Visitors to the country were generally protected from the loadshedding experience – hotels used generators and apart from reduced wi-fi access when the towers did not have enough time to recharge or the hotel chose to limit the service during loadshedding, life continued as ‘normal’. Some archives, public buildings and businesses used generators too – darkness would descend for 20 seconds during which someone invariably announce ‘don’t panic, light will be back in 20 seconds.’

Local experiences however, varied a bit more – some houses have generators or inverters to tide them over, others have turned to gas stoves which use gas cylinders or they have a single small cylinder big enough to boil a kettle or take a pot or pan. A few have turned to solar panels for generating power although this seems to be more expensive than the other options. Others have chosen to take a chance and plan around the likely hours of electricity being switched off – even hours seem to be the mark and unless there’s a major issue, power will be out for two hours, twice a day. A few days whilst we were there, we experienced 8 hours a day with no electricity – 2 x four hours. This was rather frustrating as computer batteries invariably ran out as did internet connection as wi-fi towers did not have sufficient time to charge and on occasion water too was switched off as reservoirs were unable to pump sufficient water for onward distribution. Generally, people were tolerant – annoyance was expressed at the 8-10pm slot which interfered with television watching.

What surprised me the most, was how insistent some groups were to continuing with electronic approaches when a return to good old paper would have removed many a frustration.The mad dash to find alternatives when electricity went down was something to behold.

This made me wonder how much easier some had it – most notably those who did not have the advantage of all the mod-cons. In my first week back in SA, we were launching a World War 1 project in KwaZulu-Natal where some semi-rural schools had little electricity to start with and few houses had access to the supply. Teachers were used to doing things the ‘old way’ with chalk and blackboard, and few textbooks (most definitely not something I expected to see 25 years after the end of apartheid). I heard of some using candles as opposed to the lights which could store electricity and come on when the power went off. I imagine fires for cooking are common in some areas too. Thankfully, South Africa is generally a warm country, so the need to keep warm are reduced.

There has been some suggestion that the UK is likely to suffer electricity outages. Given the huge reliance on technology and things electronic, I wonder how people will manage…especially with the move to store so much ‘in the cloud’. And all those who have migrated to escape the African loadshedding? While the existing inequalities are inexcusable, I somewhat suspect that those who are least well-off are coping better with the challenges posed by loadshedding, and provide a timely reminder that ‘progress’ is not always for the best. Here’s hoping the loadshedding can be sorted and not only for those in South Africa…and with it a reduction in the ever-widening gap between those who have and those who don’t.

Will we ever learn?

A leader in The Natal Daily News of the 15th January, 1949, though lacking the authority of a Judicial Commission, was of a very thoughtful nature and was representative of much opinion at the time. It read:

“These riots stem directly from our communal shortcomings which have been both material and spiritual. On the material side it is the flat failure to deal with the harsh facts of physical existence that has prepared sections of the community to react with murderous violence when certain stimuli are applied. When people are ill-housed, packed into congested areas, deprived of proper transport, subject to political frustration and some degree of economic exploitation, then the ground has been well prepared for terrorist outbreaks. When the particular people so treated are people whose way of life has been changed utterly in little more than a generation, the danger is multiplied. On the spiritual side, in turn, the faults are equally obvious – and equally black. Our politics are deeply sectionalised, our outlook is coloured with prejudices and discriminations. There are natives who can pretend, not without some foundation, that any anti-Indian measures they take can earn the covert sympathy of many Europeans and are justified by their harsh words. “Hatred has been sown and the harvest, though dreadful and shocking, should not surprise us.’

These words appear in the regimental history of The Durban Light Infantry, vol 2 by AC Martin (p423). This concerned the relationship between South African black and Indian, both resident in Durban. There were said to be 700 black African refugees ‘at Jacobs Native Location and at Lamontville. There had been instances when Indians attacked Africans. At Clairwood a mob fell upon and killed 3 Africans. At Overport an African was shot by Indians who were patrolling the area in a car’ (p422). The immediate cause of the violence referred to above was an argument on 13 January between a young 14 year old black African and a slightly older 16 year old Indian shop assistant. When the latter hit the former, he fell through a window cutting his head. The following day, full scale conflict between the two groups erupted and the Durban Light Infantry was called to help restore order. It turned out that the rumour had spread that the young black lad had been decapitated… This reminded me of a seven year conflict we’d been told about in northern Ghana back in 2000, which was caused by an argument between two women over a chicken. And then in SA, during the 1914-1918 war, we have the attacks on German and other foreign residents simply because their home country was at war against the British Empire and then the sinking of the Lusitania – no consideration given to the value the foreigners had made to their new adopted country, which they now saw as home. Outbreaks of random violence seem a regular occurrence.

So, what was striking about the quote at the beginning? I had never heard about the 1949 troubles – it got buried in later troubles. We know of Sharpeville (1960) and Soweto (1976) followed by all those of the 1980s and 90s which merge and then the more recent xenophobic attacks. The other striking point was what the author saw as the causes of the conflict. How little we have learned from the past – despite and in spite of believing that ‘history repeats itself’ and ‘we should learn from the past.’ Why haven’t we? We seem to think each outbreak of unrest is unique, but history shows invariably it’s the same causes underpinning the violent outbreaks.

Lord Kitchener tried to circumvent this cycle by finding ways to improve the situation of the poorest in Egypt when he was in a position to do so. Reduce the wealth gap and provide people with opportunities to improve themselves economically, and through education, and they will likely be more content. He left before he fully achieved this, but I understand that in North Africa, he is looked upon more favourably than in the UK because he tried to improve the lot of those least able to initially help themselves because the systems were against them.

Rather than giving lip-service to learning from the past, isn’t it time we found a way to make it a reality?

King Lewanika and Suffragettes

King Lewanika of Barotseland died in February 1916. This led to a series of articles in the Cape Times, one being the front page of The Weekly Cape Times and Farmers’ Record, 18 February 1916.

The short article concludes: ‘It is also to be noted that Lewanika long ago settled the Suffragette question by a stroke of genius. It was ordained that once a year on one day, the head woman be permitted, in the presence of other women, to have full and free licence to criticise the Council of the nation without check or interruption. It is said that the head woman exercised this right with immense satisfaction, and that her criticism of the men was complete and scorching. In witnessing the discomfiture of the men on that glorious day the women forgot their wrongs and their rights.’

I wonder what the Suffragettes made of this? It would be interesting to know if the head woman gathered the views from a range of other women or if she only spoke for herself.

The power of the female voice as expressed in the article resonated with Ian Hamilton’s statement about women being powerful before they put themselves on the pedestal, and also Louis Botha’s attempts to find a way out for the Boer rebels who were being pressured by their wives to make a stand against the government in 1914. He resorted to offering options – imprisonment or government service leaving the men to decide which was the lesser of the two ‘evils’.

Given the general shortcomings in our democratic processes today, I wonder if our forebears did not miss a trick back in the day when women were demanding a greater say. Is there a clue in these past experiences to help give all marginalised a greater voice while preventing new discriminations? Democracy has never been for everyone, even in its first formation it was discriminatory and promoting one group above another does not solve the equality dilemma. Perhaps we can take something from the implied messages of these few instances commenting on the power of women before they were permitted to enter the Councils of men, and design a system that works for all, irrespective of gender or background. I keep dreaming…

Does the post office restrict progress?

Not too long ago, someone recently arrived from South Africa to Britain commented that the British post office was “holding back progress”. The person concerned was all for everything being done online. This got me thinking…

In Britain, there is still an operational post office and mail delivery system. Sadly, this is not the case in many African countries. I say ‘sadly’ as a number of people have commented to me about the pleasure they get when a letter or parcel (not a bill) pops through the door, in contrast to having another email to deal with. It therefore makes sense to do as much online, if there’s no operational post delivery service. However, many African countries are suffering from electricity shortages and outside of the major cities, access to computers and internet is still non-existent. Mobile or cellular phones, though, generally have good coverage but are only owned by a small group who can afford them.

Recent dealings with South Africa in particular are suggesting that the power shortages (load shedding as it’s called) is having a real impact on business – and many are turning to their phones (and Whatsapp) to communicate as email is a hassle to access on computer. Phones, however, are also reliant on electricity for charging and in many cases wi-fi drops out when there’s a power failure. I have noticed the South African National Archive catalogue is seldom available over weekends to search. Is this because the archive has a generator to keep things going during the week but not on weekends?

Poor connection is not just an African issues, over the past years it’s become noticeable in the UK too – internet connection is not as consistent as what it used to be and mobile phone companies have reduced services in some areas (notably on the London underground) to invest in other developments. Dips in power supply are also happening more frequently than in the past.

So, why are we trying to put everything online? Years ago, I gave up on electronic calendars/diaries. It took longer to load and find a free time for a meeting than digging in my bag for a paper diary and skimming it. I have also moved to a paper post-it type project planning system for keeping track of books I’m working on – computer updates deleting online post-its and slow connection etc again forced this move. And, how true it is, I’m not sure but a fair number of years ago it was already said that Russia was returning to the old tick-tick typewriter, as I refer to it, for recording sensitive information – online hacking was too much of a risk. Further, there was talk in the archive world of securing important documents on vinyl type surfaces as they could be read with a simple pin/sharp pointed prod running over the grooves and stored better than online systems which constantly had to be updated and material migrated to ensure continued access.

Yet, technology has its plus-points – I can communicate with people across the globe in ways I couldn’t do twenty years ago, we can share research, ideas and be more independent when it comes to international transactions. But as many say, there’s nothing that beats the personal connection when you can get it. And while I do enjoy peace, quiet and solitude as found in an archive or working at home without distractions, much of it on a computer, there is something to be said for interacting with people when giving a talk and doing the shopping or popping into the post office (as frustrating as the server can sometimes be). It’s a reality check – one of the things I love about going back to Africa and being out of the cities: a reminder of what is important in life. Turning to the phone and actually speaking with someone too, has allowed many a misunderstanding caused by email to be resolved. And I could go on about the benefits of non-online interactions over online.

As a teacher we were always advised to have contingencies in case the planned lesson didn’t turn out the way one expected. It was good advice on many an occasion. Experiencing how London came to a gridlock back in the day with the 7 July 2005 bombing and hearing of people having difficulties contacting each other in the USA on and after 11 September 2001 is sufficient evidence for me to keep paper and more traditional ways of communicating. On a more local level, just watch the frustration at the train exit or in the coffee shop when a person at the pay-point’s phone decides it needs to do its own thing rather than register the payment.

I really cannot see how making everything electronic is progress… and if that is progress, how do we justify it not being available to all? The wealth gap is growing as it is – is this indicative of progress? The comment coming from a fellow South African suggests to me an out-of-touchness with reality, and the masses (how many schools had to find non-electronic means of supporting students/pupils during the recent lockdowns – in all countries) and if that makes me a non-progressive, so be it.


For years now I have not carried an umbrella around with me. Instead I have a rain poncho in my bag which hopefully covers me and my laptop and books when I’m out and about. I’m yet to find the ideal rain keeper-off-er. Why I no longer use an umbrella is because there are so many inconsiderate people who do use them – it’s easier to dodge them and protect my eyes and hair not having one.

So, it was rather intriguing that on one of the few downpour days in London, I happened to be going through the Cape Times at the British Library only to discover a history of the umbrella. (p14, Saturday 1 August 1914 for anyone interested).

In short, it appears that umbrellas (including parasols) have been around for centuries – 3000 BC/E. There is/was a sketching of an Assyrian King being cooled by a parasol being held by a woman.

The article continues that the word umbrella derives from ‘uni bra’ and Johnson (presumably Samuel Johnson) described it as ‘a screen used in hot countries to keep off the sun, and in others to bear off the rain’.

The parasol was back in the day, only for the monarch – is that why it plays such a prominent role in Ashanti festivals. We caught the Yam Festival back in 2002 in Ghana and I recall the impressive parasol indicating the chief’s presence.

By 1616, umbrellas were used in England as a luxury, made of feathers to represent water birds (why?). It was only during the reign of Queen Anne that oiled silk was used for umbrellas/parasols. In particular, they were chiefly used by women. They crossed the gender line in the 18th century when a Jonas Hanway, recently returned from Persia, was seen carrying one on London’s streets. In 1782, the first umbrella was seen on the streets of Scotland when Dr John Jameson had one in Glasgow following a visit to Paris.

It is said that the Portuguese navigators brought the umbrella to the north (France) from tropical countries. 1630 is the date given for umbrellas having whale bone handles and copper frames, and were so sturdy they were passed down from generation to generation weighing 3-4 pounds. They were covered with leather and oiled with silk.

In the 1770s, colourful taffeta parasols started to appear and in 1825 darker colours became fashionable, remaining popular to 1914.

How rapidly the life of an umbrella has changed since then. Now they come in all shapes and sizes, some able to cope with strong winds, others too flimsy, and I wonder how many get lost in a day. I’m still after an umbrella that is self-holding, as apart from it being a dangerous weapon, carrying one can get in the way of carrying other things, especially where both hands are needed, and many of us haven’t been trained to carry goods on our heads. By the time I realised this valuable skill, I was too old to build my neck muscles – I needed to start age 5 or 7. On the plus side, having to carry an umbrella might well reduce the number of people oblivious to others on the pavements because they’re so engaged with their electronic device. But we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

I wonder how this article would have ended if it had been written after the 1914-1918 war – especially given the nature of the East Africa campaign where downpours and sun both wreaked havoc on all involved.