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Braai for breakfast and two-hour commutes: South Africa in the dark

Mar 24 2019 11:32
Liezel Hill, Bloomberg

Fire-cooked meals, fraying tempers on gridlocked roads, an obsession with keeping devices charged, and candles. Lots of candles. As South Africans experience a second week of blackouts, new routines are setting in.

I start the morning with a glance at my power-outage app to get the day’s schedule.

Our Johannesburg home has no electricity for four and a half hours every day, mostly starting at noon or 20:00. If it’s an evening-outage day we’ll either eat early or find a restaurant that has power, a generator or wood-fired oven. We avoid sushi.

Some Bloomberg colleagues are more creative. Telecom reporter Loni Prinsloo has been cooking morning and evening meals on a grill in the yard.

On the menu: steak, eggs and grilled sandwiches cooked on the braai. Others, like Cape Town-based editor John Viljoen, are especially glad to have gas cooktops.

Then it’s out onto the roads. South Africa has little in the way of public transport and those who can afford cars use them.

When the power goes out, traffic snarls up instantly as blank signal lights leave drivers battling through chaotic intersections. It took Bloomberg breaking-news editor Jackie Mackenzie over two hours to get home on one recent day, more than double her usual drive.

There’s no word from the government or state-owned utility Eskom on how long the outages will last.

The struggling company has been cutting power to homes, businesses and municipalities on a scheduled rotation since 14 March. It’s been forced to ease demand pressure on the grid to avoid a total collapse after several generating units broke down.

Of course, the inconveniences for us middle-class professionals are pretty mild, especially against the backdrop of South Africa’s rampant poverty and 27% unemployment.

Colleagues who have lived elsewhere in Africa scoff at the complaints—the outages are much shorter and more predictable than in places such as Ghana and Kenya.

Still, the cuts represent a big threat to an economy in which electricity-intensive mining and manufacturing account for a fifth of activity. A gauge measuring business activity in the factory industry dropped in February after rolling blackouts returned.

Retail reporter Janice Kew’s husband flew home early from a business trip because he was worried about her: The ubiquitous South African house-alarm system needs power to function.

She has bought camping-style head-lamps for the whole family—she has two children—and spends her free time browsing online for specials on solar lights and power banks.

In between braais, Prinsloo and her partner are doing renovations on their newly purchased home.

They have to plan carefully so that they use power tools when the electricity is on and do things like painting and laying cement during load-shedding, as the rotating blackouts are called. It’s expensive and a waste of time when workers show up for a job they can’t do, she says.

Editor Renee Bonorchis hasn’t been able to get a haircut because her salon’s generator only lasts about three hours every day. And mornings without power to run the hairdryer mean "Eskom hair" for the rest of the day.

She’s lucky: Reporter Prinesha Naidoo lives between two load-shedding zones. As a result the only time when she’s at home and the power is on during the week is between 00:00. and 04:00. So that’s when she washes and blow-dries her hair.

Living in the dark makes life interesting for everyone. Reporter Colleen Goko-Petzer reads bedtime stories to her son by candlelight because she doesn’t want to do without the nighttime ritual. Ditto for baths by candlelight: She now likes them so much that he wants candles even when the power is on.

Bureau Chief Gordon Bell uses three small solar-powered lamps placed through the house because his children and dogs can’t be trusted around candles. He’s also got a rule that the fridge stays closed as much as possible while the power’s out.

Another new ritual during night-time outages is the pre-bedtime hunt around the house for any lights or TVs that might have been left on, to avoid a rude awakening when everything comes back after midnight.

South Africans have grown accustomed to the scheduled blackouts over the years—Eskom implemented the cuts in 2007 and 2008 and again in 2014 and 2015.

There were spatterings of planned blackouts in recent months, but the extent of the current cuts and the government’s inability to say how long they will last have people on edge.

The outages are the nonstop topic of conversation on a Whatsapp group for residents of banking editor Vernon Wessels’s suburb in west Johannesburg.

The discussion switched briefly after a 3-meter-long python escaped in the area, but the Eskom talk resumed as soon as Munchie was returned to his owner.

bloomberg  |  eskom  |  south africa  |  load shedding
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