Someone must pay

2008-01-24 00:00

ELECTRICITY is essential to the running of a modern economy, and as the reality of the prospect of blackouts for the best part of a decade to come sinks in, so does a realisation of the enormous extent of the ripple effects of periodic and unpredictable interruptions of power supply.

Commerce grinds to a halt, manufacturing industry suffers losses as processes are stopped in mid-production, agriculture, especially the dairy industry where cows need to be milked regularly irrespective of the vagaries of Eskom, suffers. The costs of such losses will invariably be passed on to the consumer, adding to overall inflation. And overseas investors cannot but look askance at South Africa, because who wants to invest in a country where the electricity supply cannot be relied on? In short, the more one examines the situation, the greater a calamity it seems.

What has so suddenly precipitated this crisis — and in the middle of summer when demand is traditionally lower than in winter? We don’t know. We do know, however, that the electricity grid has been extended by four percent per annum as the economy grows and power is brought to people who never enjoyed it before. These facts are, perhaps, the only glimmers of light in the darkness. But at this rate, if sustained, the country will require 40% more power in a decade. Can it be done then if it can’t be done now? Or is all development to stop?

Frantic attempts are being made to find at least short-term solutions. It is criminal, for instance, that in a country which markets itself on the amount of sunshine it enjoys, so little use has been made of solar energy. Now traffic lights powered by solar panels are being mooted to alleviate traffic chaos when the power goes off.

Not the least disturbing aspect of the crisis is the lack of accountability and culpability. It is part of the malaise in the public service. Those in high places seem able to get away with criminal neglect and nobody takes the rap. Eskom and the government are equally to blame: the government for failing to authorise the expansion Eskom asked for a decade ago and Eskom for taking it lying down.

The winter before last South Africa had a foretaste of the present fiasco when the Western Cape suffered massive power outages due to problems at the Koeberg nuclear power station which supplies that area. It was evidently not taken as a serious warning even though the consequences were dire. Instead, the Minister of Public Enterprises, Alex Irwin, spoke fatuously about sabotage and a bolt that was supposed to have fallen into a turbine.

Now the chickens have really come home to roost. Were this not South Africa, Eskom senior management and the responsible minister would have been sent packing. But here no heads roll. Instead, the government holds a crisis meeting.

Let us hope it sees light at the end of the tunnel. For the rest of us, however, the future is pretty dark.

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