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OPINIONISTA: No power, no glory: The impact of load shedding

We are sadly, in a state of emergency, which is an unmitigated nightmare for the Ramaphosa Presidency. The best we can do is be vigilant and active citizens

I recall being a guest at the opening of the all-new, all-green BP building at the V&A Waterfront in 2005, and cutting the ribbon was the then Minister of Energy Affairs, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. After a brief but charming speech, journalists asked some questions. I recall one pesky question directed at the Minister about Eskom heading for trouble in terms of proper maintenance. I remember it well as the thought had never occurred to me, and the implications thereof, if accurate, were disturbing at best. The minister responded verbatim “wouldn’t our detractors love you to believe that”.

I felt a great sense of reassurance at the time as I certainly respected the credentialed minister who then went on to become our Deputy President for a while. It wasn’t that long thereafter (less than three years) that Alec Erwin, announced load shedding and problems at Eskom. He also rejected calls for a full Eskom Inquiry at the time.

Leap forward almost 14 years from the BP building opening.

Sea Point has over 75 restaurants. This week, each day Stage 4 load shedding occurred, it was from 12-2.30pm and from 8-10.30pm effectively taking out both lunch and supper revenues from most of those establishments.

When I made this observation on Twitter, most agreed, but I also got the likes of: “Don’t talk shit. Most decent restaurants use gas to cook and eating by candlelight is a thing, don’t you know.” Sarcasm or not, one can’t tell… It also seems, despite overwhelming facts to the contrary, most believe all restaurants have generators to mitigate this crisis.

Now, let’s also consider this: Waiters get 90% of their income from tips. They usually have to travel far distances to get to work on public transport and taxis. Those daily tips are essential, in most instances, to not only supporting themselves but also their direct families, and often extended family members too, given the current unemployment rate in South Africa.

The food in these restaurants is mostly prepared in advance and will naturally spoil if not consumed, with many perishables and short shelf-life items. This puts a massive strain on these small businesses, the kitchen hands, the chefs and of course, the owners. How do you stay open with no electricity to heat food, and create a pleasant experience for your clientele? It’s impossible.

Now, let’s go just one step further. The lack of sales and turnover in these restaurants, affects the entire supply chain of businesses to them, all the way to farmers of fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, basics supplies and commodities (butter, flour, eggs, milk, salt and pepper), the fishermen and every single other direct and indirect associated business.

Sea Point also attracts many tourists who would have encountered closed doors and darkened streets when they could be spending their hard currency with us.

Some may read this piece and say “well Mike, Sea Point is an affluent area, who cares?” and they’ll be missing the point entirely. Those 75 restaurants create and provide jobs for many of the city’s poorest and attract revenue from some of the country and globes wealthiest.

This example is just one industry, in one street, in one suburb, in one city, in the whole of South Africa.

Yesterday, when my dad drove back from Plettenberg Bay, the restaurants were also shut in Swellendam over lunchtime, due to “load shedding”.

In discussing it with a friend of mine, he mentioned that when he went to have his hair cut in Cavendish Square Shopping Centre, in Cape Town, the entire mall was in total darkness due to load shedding and that prohibitive costs had prevented the mall from having a generator that could keep it open.

An inconvenient but factual observation at this point would be, the latest bouts of load shedding only began in earnest three days after President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned unbundling Eskom in his SONA speech. Is this merely a coincidence?

Against that backdrop, Numsa has already promised that should unbundling actually occur they will bring the entire Eskom (read country) to a standstill for five days leading up to the elections. Let’s unpack this a little. Paid employees of our state-owned, national power grid are threatening to stop the supply of all electricity to the country. This means no lights, no heating or cooking, no water purification nor sanitation. No hospitals, schools, travel, manufacture and general business can occur normally across the entire country. This against the existing backdrop of an uncertain global economy and a very tight local one with unemployment currently at a record high.

And with global competition from other countries with stable power supply and huge talent and assets in manufacture, tourism, call centres, IT, the growing job impact from Artificial Intelligence and new tech never being higher…

We need absolute clarity as to the exact nature of this current crisis and to understand who exactly are the experts who’ve already been called in to 1. Protect our existing supply and 2) Enhance our existing infrastructure and related potential output. We are in the dark, literally and figuratively, and the effects of this on small, medium and large businesses is simply staggering and catastrophic, let alone on schools, hospitals etc. Local and foreign investment will once again retreat. And who can blame them?

All of this is an unmitigated nightmare for the Ramaphosa Presidency.

So, beyond the potential unbundling of Eskom, are other potential forces at play?

I’m not in politics and have no greater information than the man in the street, but reading the news avidly as I do, one cannot help making the following observations.

Beyond the unions and Eskom there are apparently ANC factions trying to damage the President’s image and popularity. Direct sabotage to our power grid would assist in that regard with growing levels of anger, disillusionment and frustration.

I have absolutely no doubt that President Cyril Ramaphosa wants to turn the country around and we must support his efforts in doing so. Not necessarily by means of your vote, as that is factually a party vote, but as everyday citizens trying to help wherever we can to keep positive, focused and push for service delivery and accountability.

To help the President, the NPA and opposition parties need to ensure that those architects of this crisis are brought to book and to see them ultimately wearing orange onesies – for many years to come.

 We need to ensure that corrupt politicians do not ever get the chance again to become Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament. And to get our asset forfeiture unit to scour the globe for those missing billions and in partnership with Interpol and the global community to track, trace and return every ill-gotten cent to rebuild our magnificent country.

We are sadly, in a state of emergency. There are clearly many moving parts, agendas and innumerable variables which can or cannot be verified.

The best we can do is be vigilant and active citizens and put all our combined efforts behind growing our economy, against all current odds, and responsibly sustaining employment as best we can.

Populism will only exacerbate this crisis. There are proven ways of growing economies and this certainly isn’t one of them. DM