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South African Energy Crisis Sees Rolling Blackouts

FILE - Thandiwe Sithole studies by a candle while her grandmother Phumzile Sithole looks on during one of frequent power outages from South African utility Eskom caused by its aging coal-fired plants, in Soweto, South Africa, March 9, 2022.

Kate Bartlett

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — South Africa's state power utility, Eskom, has implemented its highest level of nationwide power cuts to reduce pressure on the grid after two more of its aging power plants broke down.

South Africans will be forced to go up to nine hours a day without electricity, putting a severe strain on Africa's most industrialized economy.

The energy crisis is so severe that President Cyril Ramaphosa cut short his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York to return home and try to find solutions to the electricity shortages.

Ramaphosa, who is currently in England for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, had just held an urgent virtual meeting with the concerned ministers to find out what led to so many units tripping, his spokesman Vincent Magwenya told VOA.

"He further wanted to understand what could be done immediately to resolve the current state of loadshedding which is devastating to businesses as well as households," Magwenya said.

On Sunday, officials from state power utility Eskom warned that the country could be heading for even higher stages of what's known here as "loadshedding" — scheduled blackouts to save energy.

Stage Six, the worst level seen so far, and which was last implemented in June during South Africa's winter, allows for some 6,000 megawatts to be cut to avoid total collapse of the national grid.

Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter said loadshedding might have to be ramped up to Stage Eight, but that "total blackout" was not an imminent risk.

"I think we are doing our level best to avoid a total system collapse, that is why we have to impose loadshedding," de Ruyter said.

For ordinary South Africans, loadshedding makes all aspects of daily life difficult, from having to plan when to cook, to making sure they always have gas lamps or candles available for when homes across the country are plunged into darkness.

And for small businesses that can't afford to get generators, the cuts are devastating.

Jeanette Mmelwa is a hairdresser at a small Johannesburg salon which was empty on Monday morning. She says there's no electricity to run the hair dryers, so no clients are coming in. Mmelwa works on commission, so isn't earning anything.

"I am concerned because of this loadshedding my boss can one day just say, 'No, I can't take this anymore. We're not making enough money, so we have to close.' I am worried about that," she said.

Things are even worse at home, said Mmelwa, who has a young son.

"Waking up in the morning and there's no lights, now you think, 'What is he going to eat before he goes to school?' So yes, it's very stressful," she said.

The current electricity crisis has been brewing for a decade. The cash-strapped and debt-ridden power utility relies on aging coal plants that are prone to breakdowns.

Corruption has also weakened the utility considerably, said independent political analyst Ralph Mathekga.

"The problem with loadshedding is that ours is self-created, it is about corruption, inability to turn things around and fight against corruption," Mathekga said.

If South Africa's energy crisis persists, there will be massive damage to the economy, which has already been badly hit by the pandemic, with the official unemployment currently at 33.9 percent.