Thursday, December 18, 2014

Darkest Africa

I'm not sure who coined the term Darkest Africa but apparently Stanley used in in a book in 1878.   As I write this, I'm sitting in the lounge of our bungalow at Olifants River Game Reserve.  It’s hot and sticky, but I have light.  Because of the vagaries of power connections in the outlying country areas, we back up our mains power with a solar system, which is able to run one low energy fridge/freezer and low energy lighting.  We use low energy appliances as much as we can in any case to try to reduce our energy footprint.  A couple of days ago a big storm knocked out the mains power and we relied on the solar, but now the electricity is flowing freely and constantly.  Well, “freely” probably isn’t the right word.  Make that “smoothly”.  It’s not Darkest Africa here.  For that you need to go to South Africa’s biggest cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Before I escaped up here, Johannesburg was enduring “load shedding”, “rolling blackouts”, “temporary interruptions”, whatever the power utility’s word of the day is.  (Note to Zoe: word for “continuing intermittent power interruptions,” please.)  What it meant was a power blackout between 6 and 10 each evening.  So eat early and go to bed.  I wonder if it will lead to a new baby boom in South Africa.

There is a long story behind this, and contrary to most opinions – always vociferously expressed – it’s not all the fault of the current government.  Although a lot of it is.  In 1923 South Africa established the Electricity Supply Commission, which is now known as ESKOM. (The “K” is not a error, it’s there because, at the time,…never mind. Don’t ask.)  ESKOM has the responsibility for the generation and supply of electricity to all sectors in South Africa.  At the time of its establishment it ignored the black people and kept the white people and businesses happy with plentiful, low-cost power.  Now it's trying to do a bit better.  Please don’t think that ESKOM is a small side show in the world power fraternity.  It is ranked in the top ten suppliers in the world in terms of both revenue and power generation.  So why do we see it like this:

 In the late nineties, during a flirtation with capitalist philosophies common then, the government decided to privatize ESKOM.  The utility pointed out that it needed a huge injection of capital to renovate and upgrade existing power stations and build new ones.  The government added this to the price tag for the parastatal.  There wasn’t a rush of offers and ESKOM remained with the state.  About ten years ago the situation deteriorated to the stage where ESKOM was forced to black out power for periods of time.  Although the government and ESKOM pointed to the lack of investment from ten years earlier, a variety of other issues emerged.  Coal supplies (the fuel of most of South Africa’s power stations) had deteriorated due to the uncertainty around mineral ownership. Diesel was an issue too.  With hydroelectric, there was a water shortage. There were technical problems at Africa’s only nuclear reactor, Koeberg.  And so on and on.

(Poffadder is a boiling hot, unpleasant village in the middle of nowhere.  It actually exists, but no one knows why.  It’s named after a lazy, highly poisonous snake that is common in the area.)
Nevertheless, things limped along fueled by huge power price increases, until last month.  Then the Majuba power plant suffered the collapse of one of its coal storage silos followed by major cracking in the other. Majuba delivers about 10% of the country’s power.  “Planned and unplanned maintenance” has other turbines out of commission and an “unexplained incident” – that took place in March - has affected yet another. A new power station, Medupi, scheduled to start production in 2011, has yet to deliver a single kilowatt. All 13,000 workers on the facility headed home for their Christmas break last weekend. Christmas break?  13th December?  One of the engineers at the plant – who required anonymity for obvious reasons – said that Medupi was a disaster and blamed ESKOM’s micromanagement.  “They know F-all about building power stations,” he said.

ESKOM claims that the government’s decision not to fund expansion in the late nineties was to blame.  Certainly new plant was needed and ten years is about the right lead time for new generating facilities.  The government claimed that it was surprised by the very rapid growth of the economy, yet the economy grew at roughly half the government’s own targets over the period.  Wow!  Imagine if their targets had been realistic!

The CEO of ESCOM, when asked if the latest burst of power cuts was a crisis, responded: “It’s a crisis for the country, but ESKOM is not in crisis.”  It forces one to ask: “Is anyone in charge up there?”  I’d like to tell you the answer, but it’s too dark up there to see anything...

Michael - Thursday


  1. Oh, Michael, what a quagmire. Politics and good management seem to be inimical, and no where does this cause more trouble than where ignorance reigns. I would feel even sorrier for you, except that you are in the bush. AND I AM NOT!!!

  2. Michael, the word you're looking for that means "continuing intermittent power interruptions" is ... are you ready for it?... jerkitricity.

    The infrastructure of societies follows the cycles of the societies themselves. The U.S., too, is (unfortunately) in the 'down' cycle. Post-WW II, highways and bridges were built at incredible rates, but now literally tens of thousands of bridges in the U.S. are in desperate need repair or complete replacement, but none of the politicians are willing to spend money on bridges instead of war. So, we're destined to suffer some tragic catastrophes before the uproar forces the politarses to shift the large sums necessary to do something about the situation.

  3. Very interesting, Michael. In most countries MOXIE means strength of character. It seems that in South Africa, the power company got it backwards, phonetically and every other way... run with that one, EvKa. :)

    1. My mother taught me not to run with sharp objects...