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Rotating Power Outages An Equalizer in S. Africa

Today, concrete poles festooned with thick black cables can be seen almost everywhere in Alexandra, even among the hand-built shacks whose residents illegally tap electrical lines to bring power into their homes. Refrigerators and microwave ovens also have become common in Alexandra, and many houses sport rooftop antennas or even small satellite dishes.

But power lines are no longer a reliable source of power. The lights go out several times a week here, generally for a few hours at a time. Shorter outages happen sporadically almost every day, forcing residents to use candles and smoky old paraffin stoves for cooking.

Some Alexandrans say they are nostalgic for what now seems like a pleasant hiatus, between the installation of electricity and the arrival of load shedding.

"It was something good then for us, changing lifestyles, something beautiful," said James Phiri, 46, a factory worker living in a two-room concrete-block home reachable only by walking down narrow dirt alleys.

The recent outages, he said, are "taking us back to those old times. We have to start again."

Lifelong resident Jonas Hoffman Monaheng, 61, has repeatedly been forced to close his Alexandra bar early. Not only do the World Cup 98 video game and Playboy 35th Anniversary pinball machine stop working, but he loses power to the refrigerators that keep the beer cold.

"Sometimes we say, 'Why don't they just take the electricity away?' " Monaheng said. "We'll just use ice like before."

Funeral home owner Linda Twala, 63, spent much of the past few days looking for a generator massive enough to keep the refrigeration unit in his business powered up. Outages also interrupted a board meeting of an Alexandra development group he belongs to, forcing members to resort to candles for light and an old kerosene stove to make tea.

Like Dhlomo-Mautloa, Twala enjoyed the turnabout one recent night when Alexandra had power and other, traditionally white suburbs did not.

"But after a few hours, we didn't have electricity in Alex" either, he recalled. "So we're sharing the same problems."

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