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.