Rotating Power Outages An Equalizer in S. Africa

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 20, 2008

ALEXANDRA, South Africa -- As she drove home to this township, known as the Dark City during apartheid because it lacked electricity while Johannesburg's white neighborhoods nearby blazed with light, community activist Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa experienced a delicious moment of irony.

On that night last month, South Africa's debilitating run of blackouts had darkened the gleaming hotels and bank towers of Alexandra's famously glitzy neighbor, Sandton. And Alexandra, once synonymous with the squalor blacks were forced to endure under white-supremacist rule, had light.

"I said, 'Wow! Reversal of roles!' " recalled Dhlomo-Mautloa, 51. "I was thinking it was wonderful."

South Africa's infrastructure, designed by apartheid-era planners to serve primarily a small white minority, is groaning nearly 14 years after the onset of multiracial democracy. The new era's economic growth has brought an unprecedented rise in traffic jams and housing demand, and power shortages have become so widespread that they have idled vast swaths of the continent's most important economy for hours at a time in recent weeks.

But here in Alexandra, the pain of what the state-owned utility Eskom calls "load shedding," the temporary cutting off of power to some consumers, has been tempered by a sense that the nation's bounty -- and burdens -- are finally being experienced more evenly.

"Load shedding is the great leveler," Dhlomo-Mautloa, who also is an artist, said with a laugh. "We should call it 'load sharing' because we are sharing this inconvenience."

The blackouts are the result of surging demand and stagnant supply, exacerbated by a failed push toward privatization that made it difficult for Eskom to build the power plants needed to serve new customers in this country of 44 million.

From 1997 to 2005, demand rose 30 percent faster than supply in South Africa, according to U.S. Energy Department statistics. The problem has worsened dramatically in the past two years, analysts say. About 70 percent of South Africans now have access to electricity, roughly double the percentage under apartheid. Eskom predicts supply shortages will last for the next five to seven years, until several new plants can be built.

"There are a whole bunch of users who weren't users before, and that's changed demand enormously," said Kevin Bennett, director of the Energy Research Center at the University of Cape Town.

The disruptions over the past two months have been massive. Traffic lights have gone dark. Factories have abandoned motorized assembly lines, leaving workers to make products by hand. Thousands of stores without electricity have been forced to turn away customers and throw away spoiled food. Even a performance of the "Lion King" musical was canceled.

The blackouts are a reminder of the past for residents of Alexandra, which has nearly 500,000 people jammed into a three-square-mile warren of concrete houses, apartment blocks and tin shacks. Among the onetime residents of the township are former president and Nobel Peace laureate Nelson Mandela, jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and the late Mozambican president Samora Machel.

Houses gradually were electrified here in the turbulent 1980s, as townships such as Alexandra boiled over with anti-apartheid protests and violence. In this climate, the process of installing power lines was slow, residents say, with connections at first going only to newer, fancier homes.

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