Lebogang Mokoena Journalist & columnist
Picture: 123RF/Jakub Gojda
Picture: 123RF/Jakub Gojda

Maintaining social distance, on an empty stomach and in the dark, isn’t easy.

This obviously doesn’t apply to those with a full pantry and a backup power supply. For those who live from hand to mouth and remain at the mercy of Eskom’s efficiency (an oxymoron, I know) the threat of Covid-19 looms larger.

Yesterday Eskom warned that the scourge of recent years is back: load-shedding. There was the usual mishmash of excuses: a generation unit in Mpumalanga and a unit at Lethabo in the Free State tripped, while there were delays in returning units at Duvha and Kendal to the grid. Different month, same sad story.

It’s a reminder that, even as many people are calling for the economy to be opened after the lockdown, Eskom can’t even power a country running at half steam.

​This is the same Eskom that, just the other day, was described by deputy president David Mabuza as “a different entity” under new CEO André de Ruyter. Mabuza also said Eskom was “central to the country’s plans of reigniting the economy” after Covid-19. Well, if that’s the case, expect to be stuck in limbo for some time to come.

Back in March, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the 21-day lockdown, the public understood what needed to be done and made sacrifices for the greater good. When the lockdown was further extended, the public again stayed at home, trusting Ramaphosa’s government to see SA through this mess.

But that was more than 100 days ago. Today we don’t see Ramaphosa on TV much any more; the promises of stable power have vanished, headlines are constantly about food parcels being stolen, and hardly any businesses have got the relief packages of government-backed loans they were promised.

No wonder the government is scoring poorly with citizens. This week research by nonprofit organisation Ask Afrika showed that the level of frustration about the lockdown is high in communities and many don’t trust the police or army to keep them safe.

With distrust running strong, I don’t see much “flattening of the curve” taking place as SA braces for the full impact of Covid-19.

But if there’s one thing this government can do to lessen the spread, it’s to make sure people have power.

Getting the basics right

I live in Orlando East in Soweto, where we’re typically left in the dark for about 10 hours a week. And this has been the case from before wide-scale national load-shedding. Until now we’ve been told it’s just “load reduction” – and it doesn’t matter whether you pay for power or not.

A week ago, during one such power cut, I drove home in the evening. What I saw were long queues of people who couldn’t cook buying takeaways, and groups huddled around burning tyres to keep warm.

One can only imagine that this is a scene being replicated elsewhere in the country where there is no power.

It’s clearly bad news, as infection rates spike in places such as Gauteng, which now has over 75,000 infections and 478 deaths.

When Eskom flips the switch to turn off the lights people will be going out onto the streets. For years, Eskom has been the biggest threat to SA; during a pandemic the risk of power cuts has makes that threat far more tangible.

Government may be calling for people to “socially distance” and stay at home, but if the state isn’t going to keep the promises it made to the country, don’t expect everyone else to keep theirs.

More alarmingly, we’re now hearing that some areas may experience water cuts too. Last night it was Ladysmith that cut off water, partly because of an “electrical fault”.

It’s critical for this not to happen. For many people soap and water is the only defence against the coronavirus. In this regard government failure equals death.

It was always too much to expect the government to get everything right. But as the full wave of Covid-19 hits, getting just the basics right would have helped: providing power and water, you’d think, isn’t too much to ask.

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