Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Where is the light at the end of the tunnel

The word that South Africa is famous for introducing into international parlance is 'apartheid'. However, as power outages continue in the country, its next big export will be ‘load-shedding'. South Africa did not invent the term, but it is claiming it.

Every time I speak with someone at home, load-shedding finds its way into the conversation. Load-shedding is a nice way of saying you are sitting in the dark for a stretch of two to three hours, eating whatever can be consumed cold from your fridge while the power company uses your electricity elsewhere.

For those like me, sitting comfortably in front of a power-guzzling computer in the northern hemisphere, this is an unthinkable scenario. For those in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is typical. In fact, having no power for only four hours a day would be a luxury.

The fact that others in the world have the same or worse problems does not make it any easier for South Africans. A support group for victims of power cuts is hardly going to help. People should not be wandering around, saying how long it has been since their last electricity fix. In a country with the wealth and scientific knowledge of South Africa, you would think the issue could be sorted out.

In my quest to learn more about load-shedding, I visited the Eskom website. It offers helpful information about what load-shedding is, and tells you about how electricity is made (or, in South Africa's case, not made). There is even a cute little graphic warning of the next blackout.

This, of course, is all well and good, if you have electricity and a computer to view it. Everyone knows the attractive layout masks chaos. Stories abound of traffic pandemonium, a massive dent on business productivity and personal impacts like individuals using emphysema oxygen-generating machines being left gasping for air in the dark.

The optimistic view is that load-shedding may result in cleaner energies in the long run and greater reliance on solar technologies, something South Africa has in abundance. Some say, tongue in cheek, generator expansion and candle production could bring in millions. Others point out that load-shedding is the product of economic growth, not decline. The pessimistic view is that nothing grows in the dark, especially an economy, and that this is the beginning of social and economic meltdown.

It is a shame that this discussion is even happening. Load-shedding is impacting on the one thing South Africa has produced in bucket loads since 1994, namely pride. South Africa was seen as the powerhouse of Africa. Now no one can find the house without a torch. It seems as if load-shedding is, outside the day-to-day consequences, creating disillusionment. The light at the end of the tunnel is lost in a bureaucratic botch-up.

But the world should take note of what is happening in South Africa. It is a global warning. The South African situation is the product of bad management, but it is also about unchecked growth. Industry, especially international companies offering investment, have been given, especially over the last decade, a free hand to build as much and as fast as possible. Regulation of power use and energy efficiency has been largely nonexistent. This is happening in countless economies across the globe. It is unsustainable.

If South Africa wants to regain some pride, either we have to beat Australia at cricket or take the easy option and find an innovative way to raise electricity supply without increasing emissions significantly. So power to the people, and for everyone's sake I hope a leaner, cleaner and more efficient and regulated solution can be found quickly. For now, good luck and remember baked beans are as good served cold as hot and red wine is best at room temperature.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 11 April 2008.