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Picture: 123RF/BEERCRAFTER
Picture: 123RF/BEERCRAFTER

On March 7, Eskom implemented stage 2 load-shedding, followed two days later by an announcement that it would be moving up to stage 4. Throughout SA’s energy crisis, economic experts have said the state-owned enterprise’s (SOE’s) woes have a dire effect on foreign investment and economic growth.

For the domestic economy, research has shown that SA loses between R500m and R700m for each load-shedding stage implemented per day. Expressed differently by Economists.co.za’s Mike Schussler, this adds up to a loss of about R2bn per day. However, the energy crisis should also be framed as a threat to peace and security and, by extension, a violation of the attendant human rights enshrined in the SA constitution.

Consider the following scenario: an employee leaves work in a city centre at 5pm and takes a minibus taxi to their home in a township about 30km away. There is load-shedding in some of the areas en route, the street lights are off and it is only through knowledge of where each pothole is that the taxi driver is able to swerve and evade them. Eventually, the passengers disembark and have to walk up to 1km to their homes.

Operating in the area, where well over a third of adults are unemployed, as in the rest of the country, is a group of individuals, many of them drug addicts, who have formed a gang. Finding his way home in the dark, the commuter is attacked and his valuables stolen to be sold for nyaope. The next morning the victim has to visit a police station to report the case, but before doing so he must call his employer using someone else’s phone to let them know that he needs to take the day off as a result of last night’s ordeal. The employer grants the leave but notifies the employee that it will have to be unpaid, as austerity measures mount for the business, which has been hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and load-shedding.

Accounting and management consultancy firm PwC predicted during the load-shedding of 2021 that the effect of the energy cuts would be the loss of 350,000 jobs. Season one of 2022’s load-shedding will therefore reinforce the job insecurity that has been wrought by the pandemic.

Adding to this scenario, our employee-cum-victim has to obtain an affidavit from the SA Police Service and take more leave to visit the department of home affairs to apply for a replacement for his stolen ID. When he arrives there the system is offline, and he has little choice but to remain in the queue until it comes back online. This is not guaranteed to happen that day, and sure enough at 3pm the queue is cut and those behind that point are told to come back another day as they have no chance of receiving service.

Even though it is still light, the man runs a significant risk of being mugged in the vicinity of the home affairs office and the R140 he brought with him to pay for a new ID stolen — the latest crime statistics revealed that aggravated robberies have increased by 92% in the past year. The violence of inequality threatens to loom large once more, as these unforeseen cases of work absenteeism are often met with retrenchment.

Responding to the inextricable link between crime and Eskom’s load-shedding in 2021, the Institute for Security Studies’ Johan Burger said: “Load-shedding is just another opportunity criminals are already exploiting, and that they will continue to exploit”. This is an uncomfortable framing, since inequality and poverty are at the centre of what leads individuals to commit criminal acts.

When independent power producers (IPPs) price their energy at unaffordable rates this is not framed as criminal exploitation. Rather, they are seen to be making use of a business opportunity, to have identified a gap in the market. If IPPs emerge in ways that are anticompetitive in terms of price and Eskom’s problems continue unabated, the long-term effect will be widening inequality and an increase in instances of violence.

Eskom's Medupi and Kusile power plants, which were meant to supplement the grid, have faced many operational and leadership challenges since their inception. The latter plant has undergone design modifications and the resulting costs have dented the fiscus — from an initially projected R80bn to somewhere in the region of R234bn.

With alarming predictions of fuel hikes that will see motorists paying R40 per litre within the next few months, and in a political context where the ANC will have its elective conference later in 2022, there is no doubt that SA will see scenes of violent protest, and possibly renewed looting, in the coming months.

These violent scenes will look random, but South Africans’ frustrations are usually expressed through the grammar and syntax of violence. The political leaders of the day will express their shock, condemn the violence and refer the issue to law enforcement agencies. True to the oligarchical nature of our democracy, members of the political elite will not take any responsibility for their complicity in decimating state-owned institutions, the failures of which stoke anger and social instability.

It is therefore unwise for our political leaders to bank on South Africans’ patience and past tolerance of the authorities’ gross incompetence. Experience around the world indicates that the cheque eventually bounces when new democracies near 30 years after transition, heralded by a decrease in voter turnout.

To avoid an even more violent future for SA, it is imperative that Eskom devises a new turnaround strategy. As a start, it could expedite the process by which Medupi makes its full contribution to the grid. In the political sphere, President Cyril Ramaphosa could give up cabinet ministers such as Pravin Gordhan and Gwede Mantashe for Lent (and beyond) and appoint ministers who fully appreciate the true cost of a failing power utility.

• Mathe, a former communications fellow at the Centre for the Study of Violence & Reconciliation, is an independent social and political analyst. 

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