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South Africa’s electricity blackouts have become worryingly normal

In South Africa, the flicker of a lightbulb or the sound of a buzzing appliance has become a cause for celebration, or at the very least, a sigh of relief. What it no longer invites is outrage.

Africa’s most advanced economy has threatened to regress this past fortnight as rolling blackouts kept the country in the dark. The blackouts are scheduled and limited, affecting different areas at different times, in a process meant to convey some sort of stability, even as the national grid flounders. These organized power cuts are known as “loadshedding,” a term coined by the failing national power supplier itself.

“Load shedding, or load reduction, is done countrywide as a controlled option to respond to unplanned events to protect the electricity power system from a total blackout,” according to Eskom’s official explanation.

The public response to the collapse of the state-owned power utility has been surprisingly muted. Anger on social media has been tempered by humorous memes; those affected have learned to work within the loadshedding schedule.  Malls, a favored hangout for South Africans, have acquired industrial generators, households have stocked up on solar or rechargeable lamps, and many citizens carry a power-bank to keep their phones going. Eskom too, has found a workaround, promising this week that loadshedding would be mitigated by running power stations on diesel, eliciting fears of another fuel hike.

Loadshedding has been part of South African life since 2014, when it first became clear that Eskom, which has enjoyed a monopoly since 1923, could not keep up with post-apartheid demand. In 1994, only half of the country’s homes were connected to an electricity supply. That number shot up to two thirds in 2002, and reached 84,4% in 2017, according to a survey by government data agency Statistics South Africa.

Reuters/Mike Hutchings

Shopping in the dark.

The blackouts have inspired innovation. EskomsePush—a free app that derives its name from an Afrikaans vulgarity—synthesizes the complicated loadshedding schedule. There’s also the more conventionally named but popular Load Shedding Notifier, which has been installed by over 500,000. Even Eskom has its own app.

But behind Eskom’s failures is a lack of political accountability for a grave economic loss. This latest round of blackouts have hurt small businesses and knocked investor confidence, taking South Africa further away from its goals as a middle-income country that offers an opportunity for all who live in it.

Years of mismanagement and corruption meant that the two new stations built to lighten the load are malfunctioning and costing millions of dollars to repair. And like so many state-owned companies in South Africa, Eskom did not escape the influences of corruption.

Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

What protests usually look like.

The country has looked to Venezuela as its worst nightmare. Stuck in darkness for several days, South Africans have been sharing videos and reports of the South American country’s epic blackouts. Venezuela’s grid has also collapsed, analysts say, due to neglect and political interference.

Nigeria, where the hum of generators have become part of Lagos’ natural sound, is another cautionary tale. Like South Africa, Nigeria’s power grid has struggled to keep up with growing demand, making electricity supply the responsibility of individuals who can afford a generator. Nigerians on Twitter are warning South Africans not to let the situation get any worse.

If anything, the blackouts are a connecting thread between the country’s rich and the poor neighborhoods, pockets of which have been without power for months, even years (video). Some resort to dangerous illegal connections, as the number of households living in slum conditions increased to 1 in 7 in 2016, according to a housing report (pdf) published last year.

While the rich work around the blackouts, the poor use so-called “service delivery” protests to try get the government’s attention over failures to provide services—water, education, local governance—shutting down highways, and setting public buildings, like schools and clinics, on fire in a desperate attempt to send a message to those in charge.  Last year, South Africa witnessed 237 of them, 64 more than the previous year, a spike likely spurred by the coming election.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is convinced that loadshedding won’t cost him votes on May 8. This is likely electioneering, and confidence inspired by the muted public response. But each day that those with the means work around Eskom, and those with none are ignored, the risk of total blackouts becoming the new normal increases.