Load shedding, a middle class problem?

2014-11-09 15:00

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A mere inconvenience for some is a stark reality for many whose lack of electricity has a permanence too dull to warrant our empathy

I often think what ails South Africa, and humanity, in general, the most is a lack of empathy.

Not that being empathetic to someone else’s situation is all it would take to make things better, but without empathy, without the ability to imagine life in all its complexity from another’s perspective, your perspective is probably skewed towards self-interest.

This view makes me cynical when a problem that’s otherwise permanent for the underprivileged enjoys greater prominence when foisted temporarily on the privileged. Such is the case with the recent bout of load shedding.

Not that I, privileged as I am, was spared things to complain about. On Sunday, I was getting ready for bed when I realised I’d left my phone in a cab. I couldn’t call the phone. The battery was dead. Nor could I, for the same reason, use any of the phone-tracking apps I’d installed.

Empire Road, one of the busiest in central Johannesburg, is left in the dark after Eskom’s load shedding this week. The blackout followed the collapse of a coal silo at the Majuba power station on Saturday afternoon
Picture: Lucky Nxumalo

Eskom had surprised the entire suburb with an unscheduled power cut, so the only light to be had was from a candle in the living room.

I felt around in the darkness for my laptop and 3G dongle. My plan was to send a tweet to the cab company. They’d then contact the driver and ask him to return my phone. Or they’d give me his contact details.

That was the plan. But my laptop’s battery was also dead.

My sister’s phone, the only other telecommunication device in the house that still had a charge, was flagging, at 8%. I had to save its remaining charge to make the call to the cab company or driver, once I got either number.

Some of the nearby fast food outlets had power and were packed with people whose Sunday dinners sat half-cooked on the stove. I visited three such outlets, lugging my laptop and power cable along. But none had accessible power points.

In the car, my sister had an idea, but we were both paralysed by questions of its morality. The emergency room of the local hospital would surely have power.

But does my phone in the back seat of a cab that’s driving around the city picking up and dropping off passengers, who may or may not report finding it, constitute an emergency?

I decided I’d only ask to charge my laptop if the emergency room wasn’t busy. It wasn’t and I had my phone back within an hour.

The entire incident was a personal inconvenience amplified and made more costly by not having electricity. No doubt not having electricity was also a personal inconvenience for the lines of people I saw at the fast food outlets.

It was also inconvenient the next morning, as the power cut persisted. Heavy traffic inched its way past the darkened traffic lights of the suburb. Like me, the people stuck in the traffic probably had cold showers that morning.

Had we had a little forewarning, we could have braced for some of these inconveniences. But Eskom’s load shedding schedules appear to be pacifiers only meant to lull us into believing we had some semblance of control over the situation.

To be fair, Eskom says it also did not expect it would need to schedule rolling blackouts, which were caused by the collapse of a coal storage silo at the Majuba power plant.

The station is only 13 years old and the collapse was seemingly due to a structural or design fault.

How long is the warranty period on a power plant anyway?

Now that the power utility has assessed the situation, the possibility of unexpected load shedding continues to hang over our heads. Nevertheless, the situation is still temporary for most of us.

For the more than 4?million South Africans who depend on kerosene lamps or candles as their main source of energy for lighting, or the more than 10?million who use wood or paraffin to cook, the lack of electricity has a permanence too dull to enjoy any prominence in the national imagination.

The situation is similar for the millions of others who struggle financially to keep their lights on, despite the 50 kilowatt-hours of free basic electricity they are eligible for every month.

Yes, they too aren’t entirely spared the fallout, such as the effects on their households of wages lost by shift workers at businesses forced to close due to load shedding.

But their day-to-day struggles caused by the lack of electricity only enjoy prominence when they protest or when their flammable sources of lighting accidentally burn their houses down. Such a situation is morally untenable.

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