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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Many South Africans say things are looking dark these days, according to an online survey conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) in January.

There have been 372 days of scheduled power cuts from the beginning of 2021 to the end of March — of which only 75 were in 2021. The number of hours of load-shedding in 2022 was three times more than in the past five years.

Anxiety, stress, strained family relationships and feelings of helplessness were some of the issues the just over 1,800 respondents said they were struggling with. Three-quarters of participants who were employed said being expected to produce the same amount of work despite having sporadic power supply caused stress — and many people fear that continued load-shedding will lead to job losses and derail attempts to turn around the country’s struggling economy.

Apart from the economic impact, which is felt by small businesses, big manufacturing industries and agriculture alike, South Africans are struggling to cope with the day-to-day effects of the power crisis. Four in 10 people reported feeling depressed because of load-shedding and six in 10 struggled with anxiety and panic because of power cuts.

For our latest Health Beat episode, Bhekisisa’s TV programme, Mia Malan sat down with Cassey Chambers of Sadag to delve deeper into the results of the survey, find out how load-shedding affects people’s state of mind and what it means for South Africans’ daily life. 

Mia Malan (MM): What prompted you to do the survey and what kind of questions did you ask?

Cassey Chambers (CC): Sadag got many calls from people who were feeling frustrated and anxious because of load-shedding. We wanted to understand what we could do to better support South Africans with their mental health during load-shedding. We received over 1,800 responses.

MM: What do the results show?

CC: Although some people are finding ways to navigate load-shedding, a lot are finding it incredibly difficult. About 42% of the participants said that they saw their depression symptoms getting worse and [six in 10 respondents struggled with] anxiety. Another big theme from the data was [that there is a] feeling of helplessness. Because the power cuts are out of our control, it leaves people feeling hopeless. The long-term projected feelings of hopelessness are having a negative impact on people’s mental health

MM: What were people most frustrated about?

CC: Having such a lack of control over day-to-day [life] impacted many aspects. Work-related issues were a big deal for [almost a third] of participants, things like whether batteries are charged, whether there’s network [coverage], or worrying about getting to work on time or being late for meetings. People also reported higher levels of road rage in traffic and, because they were frustrated, having more arguments with family members. 

MM: Did you get any specific examples or themes around how family dynamics are affected by power cuts? 

CC: Blackouts [appeared to] have a negative impact on family relationships. People weren’t coming together more during load-shedding; they were just separating in the household. Everyone’s frustrated, so being snappy and short with each other is more likely. That’s just not good for the family’s wellbeing.

MM: Do people feel less secure during load-shedding, for example, because there are no streetlights at night or security systems don’t work like normal?

CC: When you’re sitting in darkness, you’re hypervigilant. Being surrounded by darkness is really hard for some people. This makes emergency lights important. The fear of increased crime levels was definitely evident in more than 90% of the participants. But it wasn’t just perceived fear of crime or violence. Some people reported having experienced [crime such as] robberies and break-ins during load-shedding, while they were sleeping. 

MM: Does this fear go beyond load-shedding? Did people feel insecure about the direction the country is heading in?

CC: Over 96% of the respondents had a sense of helplessness and hopelessness for the future of the country. They were asking: What’s the hope for the country? What’s going to happen to my children one day? The knock-on effect of this was that many feel that they don’t have much control or hope for where the country is heading. 

MM: What did people share about their coping mechanisms during load-shedding?

CC: One of the concerning things that came out was that nearly 44% of people used sleep as a way to cope. But we know that too much sleep can also be one of the signs of depression or anxiety. People also tried to spend more family time together and to catch up on reading or going outside when there was load-shedding during the day. We expected [that] people would say they were spending more time on their screens or watching shows they downloaded, but only 18% of people said they went to their screens [to pass the time]. 

MM: Did Sadag also look at the impact of load-shedding on people in townships and rural areas?

CC: We tried to engage with people in township areas as well [despite the survey being mainly online]. We printed the survey and sent health-care workers to the communities, where they went door to door, particularly in the northern suburbs of Joburg. A lot of people said not having power was very common, even before load-shedding became a schedule on an app. They [appeared to] have more resilience to it. They had more hacks for navigating alternative power sources and often they would just stop what they were doing and wait until load-shedding was over. People in [sub]urban areas seem to have been impacted more, having to adjust. But in townships, where there’s more of those kinds of issues, people seem to be coping better. They were more worried about crime and violence, and they were concerned that power cuts could lead to more job losses, and therefore increased poverty. 

Malan also asked Tholinhlanhla Dlamini-Ngcoya, a psychologist in private practice in KwaZulu-Natal, what advice she has for dealing with the impact of load-shedding in our daily lives and what we can do to help us cope.

MM: What are the things we can do to cope with the stress of load-shedding?

TD-N: We need to try and realise that there are things we can control [and things we have no control over]. Take control of what you can, by, for example, saying: “Let me look at the schedule to see when the electricity is going to go off, so I [can] plan my day better.” We need to try and have mechanisms to cope with the fact that life is not going to be as structured as we would want it to be and plan for the unpredictable. For example, if you have a [hot-water] flask, you can still have a cup of coffee [in the morning]. We must try not to [get caught up] in the negativity of [the situation]. Every time you complain and soak in the negativity, you also [start to] lose hope; you [feel] helpless — and that can become fatal.

MM: We’ve just come through the Covid crisis, which was also unpredictable and forced us to cope. Are there any strategies from that time that you can recommend we try and use during this load-shedding crisis?

TD-N: I think what Covid has taught us is that every hour is important. So, let’s treasure that and create memories. Try to, in the midst of all this darkness, find some light and make use of the time to connect. Events like Covid and the floods [of 2022] separated families and we are still grieving. 

MM: The Sadag survey found that one of the coping mechanisms that South Africans say they use during load-shedding is to sleep more. Is that worrying? 

TD-N: When you’re suffering from depression, you have either insomnia or hypersomnia, which means you are either not sleeping or sleeping too much. So, if you’re sleeping too much, then we won’t know when you might be slipping into depression. One moment you will think you need to get up, and then [the next] you just don’t know how any more. [My advice is to] keep pushing, try to find hope even when it looks dark. Try to find ways of adapting without electricity.

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.

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