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Power failures come to South Africa

Posted by CM on January 22, 2008

Unexpected power cuts have come to South African consumers of electricity, causing shock and great alarm in that country. The infrastructure has not been expanded fast enough to cope with the much greater demands on it of the last several years, so there is nothing really “sudden” about the current obvious manifestation of that mismatch.

People in most parts of Africa are familiar with these power cuts, with the severity of the problem ranging from country to country. Zimbabwe is fast-earning the dubious distinction of being one of Africa’s worst-affected countries despite infrastructure that has long been among the best on the continent.

A South African newspaper, The Sunday Independent, got a lot of attention for a tongue-in-cheek article by one Peta Thornycroft giving her advice, based on her Zimbabwean experience, on how South Africans could learn to cope with electricity failures. Here are excerpts from Ask a Zimbabwean for tips on power cuts:

Peta Thornycroft, our Zimbabwe correspondent, reports from Johannesburg on how to deal with power cuts…

What an incredible fuss you South Africans make about a few power cuts.

I couldn’t believe my ears. As far as I can remember, in this past week there were only about six cuts, and none longer than five hours.I do know about electricity cuts and what to do about them. I know about boilers, paraffin fridges, wicks and lighting the lamps by pumping them hard at 5.30pm.

Please, South African householders, unless you live on more than an acre, don’t get a generator. There will be murder … if home owners on tiny bits of land all have generators farting rhythmically through long days and dark nights.

Even small generators use 1 litre of diesel per hour. And they get stolen easily unless cemented in and you need monster ones to do fridges and stoves.

You must conserve power. You have a chance to do this because you still do have commerce and industry. We lost our industry over the past few years, so that sector can’t really help much.We have more or less given up mining. Except, except, and think about this: your mining houses can buy power with foreign currency directly from Cahora Bassa and pay in US dollars, as they are doing in Zimbabwe now. It is a bit more expensive than Eskom, but it keeps the platinum pouring out.

We also don’t have any robots left in our streets, and little traffic, so we don’t have the kind of traffic jams I saw in Jo’burg during a power cut.

We don’t kill each other in fuel queues, and we don’t have road rage as our roads are mostly gone. Nor do we kill each other in banks, even when there is no money there, or in supermarkets. Well, only very, very occasionally, and only once, over sugar and that was in Bulawayo, which is very far from town.

So bear up, improvise and go get the solar, inverter, battery alternatives, and gas. And you will all survive until you have enough new power sources within eight years, so I hear, and you are not going to be nearly as short of foreign currency as Zim, so can import some power.

But Zimbabwe will recover sooner than South Africa, because our population is in Hillbrow.

An interesting mix of the humorous, the factually humorous and the sad lamenting of decline. On that level it is an engaging read that worried South Africans will have found interesting and weary Zimbabweans will identify with.

There is also a mocking level to the article which leaves a vaguely bad taste in the mouth.

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