Energy Apartheid: Planned Power Cuts Shine a Light on Electricity Inequality

Gugulethu Township South Africa scaled

Scheduled power cuts, commonly known as load-shedding , have threatened the political and economic stability of South Africa since 2008. The state-owned power utility, Eskom, attributes the roots of the energy supply crisis to a lack of resources and maintenance issues at power stations; however, it is evident that mismanagement, debt, corruption, and the lasting effects of Apartheid comprise the lethal combination of factors responsible for South Africa’s energy supply crisis. As well as hindering economic growth, load-shedding has shone a light on the inequality that has been plaguing Black South Africans since the Apartheid Era. Recently, the CEO of the embattled power enterprise has been accused of executing racist strategies which prolong periods of power outages in low-income Black informal settlements, more commonly known as townships, to extend past the proposed hours of planned load-shedding. [1] 

South Africa’s state-owned energy monopoly, Eskom, was established during the Apartheid Era in 1923 and remains responsible for all phases of electricity supply from generation of electricity to distribution. [2] During Apartheid, Eskom was able to generate all its energy from coal, an abundant resource in the country. Eskom functioned using a grid system that was created to distribute energy to geographic areas where the country’s white minority resided, thus diverting energy from historically Black areas. However, in the post-Apartheid years, demand increased due to rapid economic growth and the extension of the national electricity grid to low-income Black townships. Despite the rise in energy consumers, Eskom’s expansion was limited by poor governance and corruption. [3] When the demand for energy surpassed the supply, Eskom began to use load-shedding as a means of reducing the pressure on the power grid. Major geographic areas in South Africa are divided into different load-shedding zones and experience periods of scheduled power outages in which the entire area does not receive electricity for any period from two hours to a full day. [4] 

The current electricity inequality is a direct ramification of the policy of separate development for different racial groups under the Apartheid administration. The majority of South Africa’s Black population was forcibly relocated to informal urban settlements, commonly known as townships, on the outskirts of major cities. One such township, Soweto, emerged in the 1930s as a result of Black laborers from rural areas moving to Johannesburg to find employment. [5] Soweto’s unsystematic growth resulted in the township lacking municipal services and government infrastructure to this day. A scathing report, titled “Energy Racism: The Electricity Crisis in South Africa,” published by the Center for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg, lambasted Eskom for its strategies that continue the legacy of Apartheid and separate development by limiting access to electricity to low-income Black communities in the township of Soweto. [6] The effects of the scheduled power cuts are barely noticeable in wealthy, historically white-only areas. According to the report, the areas that had the most hours of load-shedding over the 30-day period in which data was taken in the South African province of Gauteng were Soweto, the West Rand and the Vaal. Soweto, where 98.5% of the residents identify as Black Africans, experienced load-shedding a staggering 29 times, while the Vaal area, where 72.7% of residents are white, experienced load-shedding a mere eight times.  [7] 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has ordered Eskom to halt the unfair practice of targeting townships to have extended periods of no electricity compared to wealthy areas. [8] Social media users have voiced their concerns that the load reduction policy unjustly preys on low-income Black communities. Eskom has justified its strategy of prolonged load-shedding in townships by contending that it prevents the theft of electricity by means of illegal connections and vandalism of its infrastructure. [9] The company makes accusations that residents of these townships do not pay their electricity bills, despite people who live in historically white neighborhoods also defaulting on payments. A current Eskom executive who elected to remain anonymous for fear of retribution described the prolonged periods of load-shedding in townships as “indiscriminate blackouts coated as load reductions” and challenged Eskom to release data that supports their stance that there are alleged illegal connections in these areas.  [10]

Overall, load-shedding costs the South African economy over $40 million per day. [11] Electricity shortages negatively affect economic growth through the loss of production, causing damage to equipment, the spoilage of raw materials, and restart costs. Small businesses in townships such as Soweto are more heavily affected by continuous planned power cuts as they cannot afford to invest in contingency plans such as backup power generators like most of the businesses in wealthy urban areas do. Economic activity during business operating hours is limited by the lack of electricity, resulting in less income for workers who are already living below the poverty line. Extended periods of load-shedding has forced Mzee Kutta, a member of the Khayelitsha Business Forum, to close his laundry service business, which was located in the majority-Black township of Khayelitsha.   In Soweto, Most Black South Africans are uneducated, but many of those who turn to entrepreneurship to make a living have become deterred by load-shedding. [12]  The disturbance to the livelihoods of low-income Black workers is a systematic impediment that mirrors the injustices of racial capitalism perpetrated during Apartheid . [13] 

Despite this, many South Africans remain hopeful that the newly elected CEO of Eskom, Andre De Ruyter, will solve the energy crisis. De Ruyter claims he is battling to end the widespread corruption that extended from lower levels of Eskom to the senior and executive management level, particularly in procurement processes. In October 2022, De Ruyter’s predecessor was arrested and charged with corruption, fraud, and money laundering. It is estimated that over $121 million was spent granting construction contracts to unqualified businesses due to political relationships, resulting in the inefficient allocation of funds and the limitation of competition. [14] His arrest showcases progress in combatting widespread corruption in state institutions, but this will not immediately fix South Africa’s energy crisis. 

De Ruyter argues that implementing central control measures won’t solve the problem, but convictions and prosecutions will. Under De Ruyter’s control, Eskom is cooperating with South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority in order to share information that will lead to the prosecution of officials who engaged in corrupt actions such as granting tenders based on personal ties as opposed to competency. [15] 

De Ruyter approximates that South Africa will need to fork out R1.2 trillion or around $68 billion by 2030 to provide enough generation, transmission, and distribution capacity to meet the country’s growing demands. [16] As a solution to the crisis, the South African government has proposed that Eskom be divided into three separate entities each tasked with either generation, transmission, and distribution. This seems to be a viable solution, as it could result in increased competition in the energy sector, making it more efficient. However, influential labor unions have lobbied against dividing the entity out of fear it will lead to privatization and mass retrenchment. Another more expensive but costly solution is for Eskom to turn to renewable energy as an alternative form of electricity generation. However, the company is currently around $25.2 billion in debt, so this will prove a challenging feat. [17]South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has placed reforming Eskom and mitigating the energy crisis high on his agenda, but his administration has thus far failed to deliver. It is clear that South Africa’s energy crisis and electricity inequality reflect a macrocosm of the historical inequalities and economic crisis perpetuated under Apartheid. For the time being, it seems as if the country’s energy Apartheid will persist and low-income Black South Africans living in townships will be left in the dark.


 References

[1] Maggott, Terri, Siphiwe Mbatha , Claire Ceruti, Lydia Moyo , Alice Mporo , Trevor Ngwane , Cleopatra Shezi , and Luke Sinwell . Energy Racism Report: The Electricity Crisis and the Working Class in South AfricaUniversity of Johannesburg. Accessed November 30, 2022. https://www.uj.ac.za/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/energy-racism-csrp-web.pdf. 

[2]  Rathi, Anusha. “Why South Africa Is in the Dark, Again.” Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, July 8, 2022. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/08/south-africa-energy-crisis-eskom-power-cut/. 

[3]  Ibid. 

[4]  Daniels, Nicola. “Victims of Apartheid Suffer ‘Energy Racism’.” Independent Online. IOL News that Connects South Africans, April 29, 2022. https://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/news/victims-of-apartheid-suffer-energy-racism-8aa82e0a-1717-4504-bf87-806d89f03831. 

[5] De Selincourt, Kate. “South Africa Takes the Apartheid out of Power: Although More than Half the Electricity Generated in All Africa Is Produced in South Africa, Most of the Country’s Black People Have No Power Supply. but Things Are Changing.” New Scientist. New Scientist, September 6, 1991. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13117852-800/. 

[6] Maggott, Terri, Siphiwe Mbatha , Claire Ceruti, Lydia Moyo , Alice Mporo , Trevor Ngwane , Cleopatra Shezi , and Luke Sinwell . Energy Racism Report: The Electricity Crisis and the Working Class in South AfricaUniversity of Johannesburg. Accessed November 30, 2022. https://www.uj.ac.za/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/energy-racism-csrp-web.pdf. 

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Makinana, Andisiwe. “Ramaphosa Tells Eskom to Stop Targeting Townships with Prolonged Blackouts.” SowetanLIVE. SowetanLIVE, July 5, 2022. https://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/south-africa/2022-07-05-ramaphosa-tells-eskom-to-stop-targeting-townships-with-prolonged-blackouts/. 

[9]  Makwakwa, Thabo. “De Ruyter’s Energy Apartheid: Eskom’s Load Shedding Policy in SA’s Townships Raises Eyebrows.” Independent Online. IOL | News that Connects South Africans, May 18, 2022. https://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/news/de-ruyters-energy-apartheid-eskoms-load-shedding-policy-in-sas-townships-raises-eyebrows-f46ac1ec-e8c7-457e-8a88-eedc26aa18a0. 

[10] Ibid. 

[11] Ibid. 

[12] McCain, Nicole. “’It Has a Ripple Effect’: Load Shedding Bringing Cape Town’s Township Businesses to Their Knees.” News24, June 30, 2022. https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/it-has-a-ripple-effect-load-shedding-bringing-cape-towns-township-businesses-to-their-knees-20220630. 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Givetash, Linda. “South Africa’s Former Electricity Boss Charged with Corruption.” VOA. Voice of America (VOA News), October 28, 2022. https://www.voanews.com/a/south-africa-former-electricity-boss-charged-with-corruption/6809698.html. 

[15] Omarjee, Lameez. “Corruption ‘Normalised’ at Eskom, but Sending People to Prison Will Help – De Ruyter.” Business, September 1, 2022. https://www.news24.com/fin24/economy/corruption-normalised-at-eskom-but-sending-people-to-prison-will-help-de-ruyter-20220901. 

[16] Staff Writer. “South Africa Needs R1.2 Trillion to End the Energy Crisis: Eskom.” Business Tech, September 28, 2022. https://businesstech.co.za/news/energy/629270/south-africa-needs-r1-2-trillion-to-end-the-energy-crisis-eskom/. 

[17] Staff Writer. “Eskom Crisis: Why the Lights Keep Going out in South Africa.” BBC News. BBC, February 16, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47232268. 

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