JOHANNESBURG – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had an urgent meeting scheduled with his Cabinet on Wednesday to discuss the country’s electricity crisis, which has led to unprecedented levels of nationwide power blackouts in Africa's most developed economy.
The troubled state-owned power utility Eskom, which produces about 95% of the country’s electricity, is implementing scheduled, rolling blackouts in an attempt to save electricity while struggling to keep its ageing and poorly maintained coal-fired power stations operational.
Ramaphosa returned home to chair the meeting with his ministers after attending the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London. He canceled his trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
Eskom had started implementing Stage 6 power cuts, a level that means businesses and homes go without electricity for more than 10 hours a day. The company has since reduced the level to Stage 5, which requires South Africans to go without power for up to eight hours a day.
The blackouts are also affecting other government services, including water supplies in some areas as electric-powered pumps grind to a halt.
With South Africa's economy already struggling to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, economists have given stark warnings on the effect of the blackouts.
Eskom imposed power cuts - what the company refers to as load-shedding - to a less-drastic degree earlier in the year, and they were a crucial contributor to the economy contracting by 0.7% in the second quarter, according to the official South African statistics agency StatsSA.
Eskom sometimes gives just a few hours notice of the blackouts.
“It is very difficult to understand what will happen next," Jannie Rossouw, an economist at Johannesburg's University of The Witwatersrand, said. "Will load-shedding stages decline over time going forward, will we go back to Stage 6, or might we even move beyond Stage 6 in months to come?”
“It is really just about impossible for the general public and businesses in South Africa to plan if Eskom cannot plan its capacity," Rossouw said.
Just about every economic sector has been hurt, and South Africa’s biggest telecommunication companies this week warned that continuous blackouts may start affecting their services.
MTN South Africa chief technology and information officer, Michele Gamberini, said it was currently using upgraded power back-up batteries to keep its cellphone towers operating but that prolonged blackouts could lead to loss of services.
“Despite us having placed thousands of batteries at our sites across the country, the efficacy of those batteries greatly reduces once we pass Stage 4 load-shedding,” Gamberini said.
The company has also rolled out more than 2,000 diesel-powered generators to its sites to counter the prolonged blackouts, it said.
Eskom is in a race against time to procure additional capacity from renewable energy sources like wind and solar through independent power producers. It has announced a program to urgently procure at least 1,000 megawatts of electricity from the private sector to ease the burden of the blackouts.
Ramaphosa faces pressure from opposition parties that called on him to fire the ministers responsible for state-owned enterprises and the energy sector. His government defended itself by saying it took over a dysfunctional Eskom, which was at the heart of allegations of massive government corruption under former President Jacob Zuma.
“We really regret the way in which our energy provision that is coming from Eskom is upsetting both our households and the economy," Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said on the Newzroom Afrika news channel. “But this is the Eskom we inherited, this is the Eskom we’re trying to fix very hard.”
There are already moves by Ramaphosa's rivals to oust him as the leader of the ruling African National Congress at the party’s elective conference in December.