South Africa’s Electricity Shortages Hit Poor Hard

February 10,2015

JOHANNESBURG— While South Africa’s electricity woes have led to a national outcry over mismanagement of the power monopoly, wealthier residents are coping with electric outages by the use of generators, gas stoves, heaters and cookers. For the country’s vast poor population, however -- living on less than $1.25 a day -- the government’s failure to supply electricity has switched off their lives.

Sixty-three-year-old Sheila Thwala has lived in this house in the Johannesburg township of Soweto for the past 14 years. With no source of income, she is dependent on the government’s subsidized electricity.

But the current failure of the public energy utility, Eskom, to constantly supply her and millions of South Africans with reliable electricity has left her fuming.

“We were very happy when we voted for our black government. We were sure that since it’s now a black government in power, we will not suffer anymore, because the apartheid government oppressed us. But now it’s a pity because our black government is making us suffer,” she said.

Sometimes she goes for days, at times a full week, without electricity.

Myriad problems

And there is no end in sight. Eskom -- the government owned electricity monopoly -- has admitted that a lack of investment, poor maintenance, low tariffs, huge debt, and delays in constructing new power plants means load shedding will continue for several more years to prevent the entire energy grid from collapsing.

Those who can afford it, resort to using generators, gas cookers and even solar power during electricity blackouts. Foreign investors are starting to lose confidence and say they may have to go elsewhere in Africa.

But for millions like Thwala, there is no choice.

The constant power cuts have rendered her electric stove useless. Her refrigerator has become a food spoiler and her washing machine sits idle.

She now has to use a smelly and unsafe paraffin stove for cooking. But Thwala, and her family of seven, need $3 a day to buy the paraffin. That is three times more than they pay for the government’s subsidized electricity.

When she has no money for paraffin, Thwala picks firewood in the bush to cook, but said that is last resort.

“This is extreme torture. The smoke fills my eyes, the fire is too hot, but I still must cook," she said. "Moreover, we go to the bush to gather the firewood. I cannot even express the suffering that we go through in winter.”

'Load shedding'

The load shedding also has affected students living in poor households.

Twenty-year-old Phineas Ngomane also lives in Soweto. He has just finished his matric [exams needed to attend university] and now is preparing to start his Bachelor of Arts in Education studies at a local university.

He said constant electricity blackouts have forced him and fellow students to resort to candlelight to study -- negatively impacting their education.

“It’s not safe and sometimes the work doesn’t become neat. Our marks become subtracted for neatness, so it becomes very difficult and even the liquid that comes out of the candle spills into our books.”

Like Thwala, Ngomane also is pleading with Eskom, to switch the lights on and keep them on.