Winter is quickly approaching and it appears that Eskom will, for the time being, remain the popular subject of vilification, eye rolling and recycled jokes. Load shedding, despite supposedly being a source of great linguistic humour to foreigners of all nationalities, continues to be a disheartening prospect for most locals, besides those afflicted with light fingers, generator salesmen and / or impromptu mediaeval re-enactment troupes.
On the 2nd of November 2014, in a month otherwise devoid of exceptional news stories, a coal storage silo at Eskom’s Majuba power station would come tumbling down, and with it the usually bright disposition of most South Africans.
Mandatory periods of delectrification left office complexes across the country with only intermittent air-conditioning, soapie watchers without their daily fix and forced a Good Samaritan / exhibitionist to try his hand at traffic directing where a powerless robot stood idly by. The nation was forced to reconsider its electro-centric lifestyle and change its habits accordingly.
The only positives possibly eked out of this candlelight catastrophe being the revival of both the midweek braai and the lagging middle-income birth rate.
Summer frivolities aside, the country is now facing the prospect of braving the winter cold without the aid of heaters and hot coffee. As we prepare to enter winter’s unforgiving embrace, let us not forget the following four valuable truths about power consumption and load shedding.
1) We are an energy hungry country
Let’s start with a few facts and figures to contextualise our terawatt tragedy. South Africa, at 232 Billion kWh per year, is the 15th highest consumer of energy in the world – impressive. However, our energy consumption per capita is much more modest, only ensuring us the 59th spot on the list, nestled between the fiscal disaster that is Greece and the Faroe Islands, home to 50 000 ex-Norwegians and famous only for consuming slightly more energy per person than South Africa.
It would seem that air-conditioning and day time television is not solely to blame for the our national thirst for energy, evidenced by the fact that only 17.2% of national energy is actually used by domestic households, the rest consumed by industry (38%), mining (15%), commercial (13%), transport (3%), agriculture (3%), and the ominously vague ‘general’ (12%). It is this other 83%, the non-household sectors, which are the valuable contributors to the South African economy and therefore the bigger economic victims of load shedding.
2) Load-shedding costs South Africa… a lot
The Department of Public Enterprises estimates that load shedding costs the country between R20 billion and R80 billion per month, depending on the particular stage of load shedding. At stage 1, a 1000 MW per day is shed from the electrical grid. Multiply that figure by the roughly 215 days since the 2014 / 2015 round of load shedding started and South Africa has already shed the energy equivalent of 12 ‘Little Boys’ and with it R120 billion from the country’s coffers.
Stage 3, requiring 4000 MW of electricity to be withheld per day, would see the economy take a knock of R80 billion per month. However, the average South African is understandably less troubled by having 2 hour breaks from work every now and then and more by the inconvenience of a powerless household unable to support modernity’s electric comforts. Understandably the average South African also regularly complains about the quality of power provision, or rather the lack thereof, but it is not necessarily those who need it most that are the most vocal.
3) The rich use the most electricity, but also complain the most about its cost
Ironically, considering the history of the country, load shedding does not discriminate. It affects all South Africans, from Sandhurst to Soweto, and all have reason to complain. But the most likely, historically, to complain are the wealthy – the top income earners – who not only use the most electricity, by a considerable margin in fact, but also complain the most about its price.
According to data from the Department of Energy and StatsSA, the top 20% of income earners consume almost twice as much electricity on average per month (R3479) than the bottom 80% (R1804). Of those in the top third of the Living Standard Measure, 71% also complain that the electricity prices are too high, compared to the rest of the country of whom only 58% believe that Eskom is overcharging them.
The perception that Eskom is overcharging the country is interesting to note considering that at the time of these reports, the price per kWh of electricity in South Africa was the 4th lowest, taking into account purchasing price parity, of 17 of the world’s biggest economies. But facts be damned, our love of communal moaning over perceived government slights has essentially become the faded old coffee stain in the corner of the rich tapestry that is South African culture – jarring to outsiders, but an almost reassuring presence to those who see it every day.
4) Load shedding, like any tragedy, brings South Africans together
Where local sport triumphs have regularly been lauded for uniting one of the most diverse nations in the world, one should not underestimate the ability of tragedies to do the same. The shared loss of universally revered statesman and the unified condemnation of senseless attacks on foreigners – two examples of recent tragic events that shared a brazen disregard for cultural, racial and socio-economic divides to unite the country together in outcry.
South Africans have displayed a commendable fortitude in weathering the most terrible of storms – politically, economically, socially or otherwise – with good humour and a little bit of self-depreciation and there is no reason to think that this time should be any different.
And so we can share a tired old joke or a frustrated rant, regardless of race or class, at the expense of Eskom and its load shedding, a near daily event that affects all. An event that, while inexcusable in its existence, is nonetheless charming in its ability, for a brief couple of hours a day, to unify a nation in simultaneous cursing of the powers that be.
But then again, that’s South Africa –interesting, contradictory and a little bit funny at times.
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