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.

Sailings Cape Town to England 1914

The following is extracted from WO 25/3696 (UK National Archives) being ships which sailed from Cape Town to England at the start of the war. Mostly they carried Imperial Garrison forces which had been relieved by the Union Government offering to take over defence of South Africa so the British forces could help the imperial power in its struggle. 

A few ‘indulgence’ names are recorded on the registers, invariably wives and children returning to England. However, it does not appear that South Africans travelling to Britain to enlist there were included in these lists, nor men those of the Royal Navy units being transported between ports. Where these names are recorded is yet to be identified.

22 Aug 1914 – 21 Sep 1914 – Kenilworth Castle to Southampton

23 Aug 1914 – 19 Sep 1914 – RMS Brittan to Southampton (? Sailed 27 Aug 1914)

26 Aug 1914 – 19 Sep 1914 – Guilford Castle to Southampton

27 Aug 1914 – 19 Sep 1914 – Goorka with Reservists to Southampton

3 Sep 1914 – 28 Sep 1914 – SS Ingoma to Southampton

20 Sep 1914 – 1 Oct 1914 – Garth Castle to Southampton

28 Sep 1914 – 20 Oct 1914 – Dover Castle to Southampton

29 Sep 1914 – 30 Oct 1914 – Kinfaus Castle to Southampton


21 Oct 1914 – 20 Nov 1914 – Balmoral Castle to Southampton

24 Oct 1914 – 13 Nov 1914 – Llandovery Castle to Southampton


9 Nov 1914 – 27 Nov 1914 – SS Britain to Southampton

The Union Castle line starts using Tilbury instead of Southampton

14 Nov 1914 – 2 Dec 1914 – Walmer Castle to Tilbury

20 Nov 1914 – 10 Dec 1914 – Durham Castle to Tilbury

See more about Tilbury Docks at – http://londonsdocks.com/tilbury and specifically about WW1at:

It is from Tilbury that the Sopworth planes to track down Konigsberg leave and in 1915, the crew of the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.



Union Castle Line made ships available to the British Government for transport, also hospital…



Galway Castle sunk by torpedo on route to SA in 1918



What might Khandahar have to do with Africa you might well ask… it’s one of those one-thing-leads-to-another type relationships.

The link is Lord Kitchener who spent a fair bit of his life on the continent – of his 64 years, 12 were spent in the UK, 2.5 in South Africa, 7 in India, approximately 8 in the Middle East, Cyprus and Turkey, about 2 travelling the world and the remainder in Egypt/Sudan.

During his time in India as Commander in Chief of the Indian Army, Kitchener brought about some changes to the military structure and the way the regiments operated. Not all were successful, and as I explain in Kitchener: The man not the Myth, not all was a failure. One of the things that struck me whilst researching the man was his open-minded approach to fighting – he was open to trying new things, had been up in a hot-air baloon, was supposedly the first British general to fly in a plane, involved the navy with his campaigns in Egypt and thought the bombardment of the Western Front was not the most effective way of dealing with the Germans – he was certain there was another way to break through.

In line with this, to defend the Indian frontier, was Khandahar. Kitchener explored the use of skis for the Indian Army. However, he gave up on this idea as impractical. Alas, I couldn’t find anything more on Kitchener, skiing and Khandahar other than what is recorded in Arnie Wilson’s Snow Crazy: 115 years of British Ski History which I happened to be proofreading whilst researching Kitchener. How fortuitous is that?! especially as I don’t ski or do much snow-related, other than try and avoid it.

And then, proofing Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends you Choose, again Khandahar appeared. Here, Marthe talks of ‘bellowing skirts’ on skis – which if you’ve seen the cover of Snow Crazy, you’ll understand. Both books are fascinating reads – I had no idea any of ‘my’ history characters, ie have a connection with the First World War in Africa, were prominent in the ski-world. There’s more than just Kitchener… This opens up new connections to explore in due course. Marthe’s book, however, is more directly Africa related. She grew up in Kenya, spent time in Congo and South Africa researching animals, dodging the outbreak of wars and experiencing Apartheid as a visiting lecturer. Apart from her fascinating insights into animal behaviour and how it compares/relates to us as humans, she explores what a world of vegans would look like and suggests ways we can improve the quality of life for all. What an incredible 115 and 80 years of experience respectively, all wrapped into a few pages. Now, I just need to visit Kandahar.


Grimsby – definitely not a Grim town

On telling people we were going to visit Grimsby, we were asked “Why do you want to go there? It’s rather grim, not much to do.” Well, I was going to follow up a World War 1 Africa link – more in due course about that – which was well worth the visit, and yes, Grimbsy was quiet, but definitely not grim.

Apart from my WW1 discovery, we were directed to dinner at Papas, named ‘the UK’s No 1 Fish and Chips’ in 2018. This accolade follows the 2015 one naming Papas the ‘World’s Largest Fish and Chip Shop’ and boy is it deceptively large. Good fish was to be had though. And did you know there is a National Fish and Chip Museum in York? According to the publicity newspaper you get with your menu at the restaurant, there is a note about Churchill exempting the restaurant from rationing during World War 2. What is not stated, and not surprisingly, is that fish from South Africa was imported – snoek, by all accounts an acquired taste as I’ve not yet found anyone of the post-war years who likes it as much as I do. In fact, most turn their noses up at it. Perhaps it’s got to do with the way it’s prepared. While our visit to a fish market in Ghana was made memorable by the aroma of fish drying outside, there wasn’t any such hint in Grimsby, perhaps because fish is no longer the main source of income it used to be? The fish braai/barbeque on Zanzibar was more appealing. And in Mongolia, we witnessed fish drying from the wing mirror of trucks.

But the highlight of our visit to Grimsby, apart from my WW1 excursion, was the Grismby Fishing Heritage Centre. Here in one go, you get an overview of a time past, how the town was centred around fishing and an insight into the dangerous work the men undertook. Not to be forgotten was the life of those, particularly wives, who stayed behind and how the whole community was involved in the industry. Talking to one of the volunteers at the museum, he’d spent time working on a fishing vessel off Namibia in the 1980s, the traditions of the water have changed very little. Having read many diaries of soldiers and others sailing between South Africa and Britain, and East Africa, during World War 1, their accounts of crossing the equator was no different to our volunteer. Although the museum focuses on life in the 1950s, apart from technological changes, I imagine it was not much different in earlier years, although seeing the town today, it is hard, without prompting by this museum, to imagine what life was like when fishing was the industrial force it was. The museum also owns the last diesel side trawler in the UK, the Ross Tiger which we were told requires additional funding to allow an overhaul and refurbishment to remain part of the living history experience. This is one of the best museums I’ve seen in a long time – carefully thought through to give as realistic an experience as possible, meeting the needs of young and old, and clearly created and managed with love. My South African equivalent is the Distict Six Museum in Cape Town.

A Titanic connection

A little while ago I visited Northern Ireland – what a little gem of a territory. We spent most of our time out in the country, travelling the northern coast line which on a smaller scale and with no rain could rival Cape Town, and unbeknowingly, until I asked a police officer, caught the last of the season’s marches. I had wondered why there were so many flags with battle honours flying in so many places. The march reminded me of days in 1980s SA when the AWB used to strut their stuff in my home town. Another thing I found fascinating were the large wall paintings recording aspects of the past, memorials to fallen comrades or such like. I wonder if anyone has written about these? It would make a fascinating cultural-political study. Crossing the empty Garvaghy Road as we moved between areas contrasted with television images of years gone by – long may it still last. And then into Belfast where we saw the incredible Big Fish by John Kindness telling of Ireland’s past. Within walking distance on the other side of the river is the Titanic Museum, the building itself a work of art and quite moving outside, the dock where the ship was built now an outline of her size, where lifeboats were placed and the proportion of people who lived and died according to deck etc. I can’t say anything more about the museum as we didn’t go through – I wasn’t sure my interest would have been catered for: the Titanic’s link with South Africa.

Back in 2012, a century after the ship went down, the Mail and Guardian ran an article identifying South Africans who had been on board. It too did not contain the link I was interested in. Few people know that South Africa’s second Governor General, Sydney Buxton, had been the President of the Board of Trade which sanctioned the Titanic sailing with the few life vests and lifeboats it did. In his defence, his decision had been based on the expert reports he had been given – hindsight is always much wiser. After initial thoughts that his political career would survive the disaster, when Governor General Herbert Gladstone decided to resign his post in South Africa, it was decided Buxton should fill the role; especially as an election was looming. Buxton’s appointment at the time was, for South Africa, most fortuitous. He had been in the Colonial Office before the 1899-1902 southern Africa war so had a fair idea of what the challenges were. His hands-on pragmatic approach and personable attitude, although eliciting the odd exasperation from Louis Botha as his interference, was welcomed by the young Union government trying to find its way through rebellion and supporting a country it had fought against less than 15 years before all while creating its own armed force in spite of the UDF having been formed in 1912.

South African – Irish links extend beyond the Titanic. Irish men fought on both sides of the 1899-1902 war, in 1917/8 Jan Smuts visited Ireland and was involved in trying to prevent the territory splitting – it was believed that the British-Boer and British-Irish situations were similar and lessons could be learnt from how Botha and Smuts had worked to unite South Africans. And in more recent times, current President Cyril Ramaphosa was in the 1990s involved in the Irish arms decommissioning process. And in the East Africa campaign, at the ceremony where the Germans laid down their arms in 1918 there was at least one Irishman present – John ‘Jack’ Bannon of 1/4 KAR and while there is no known South African present, the man who negotiated with the German commander was none other than South African Jaap van Deventer. An Irish doctor, Norman Parsons Jewell saw most of the war in Africa – both Irishmen too were caught up in the Irish troubles of the time: Bannon having just enlisted, was involved in suppressing the Easter uprising before he left for Africa, while Jewell was warned about leaving his accomodation in 1922 as he was a targeted man for having served in World War 1. The result of the latter was that Kenya saw him return as a doctor until 1932.