Robbie van Heerden and Al’louise van Deventer really don’t want South Africa to descend into a total blackout – because if it does, they’ll be sued and will lose their jobs.
Van Deventer and Van Heerden are the duo tasked with managing Eskom’s national control centre in Germiston, on the East Rand.
They and their team must always know exactly what’s happening on the power grid. They have to figure out when load shedding is needed and when it can be avoided.
Sometimes their jobs make them unpopular with their own families: Van Heerden’s wife stormed out of an anniversary dinner two years ago because she became angry when he kept checking his phone for updates on the grid.
Ordinary South Africans, of course, can’t stand the phantom figures who actually have to flick the switches from “on” to “off”.
“Some of the insults are hurtful. Others call us stupid idiots who can’t do our jobs properly,” says Van Deventer.
“But we cannot take the insults personally because this is not a popularity contest.
“When we decide to do load shedding, we do so because there is a necessity and people in the country need to understand that.”
Without these periods of load shedding, “the country will be hit by a total blackout, and that is something we cannot afford to have”, she says.
It’s a Thursday afternoon at the control centre, the exact location of which is a closely guarded secret as it has been classified as a national key point. There’s a no-camera policy, and reporters can’t even carry their cellphones into the building.
Van Deventer and Van Heerden look nothing like typical boardroom players in tailored suits with serious expressions that say “time is money”.
The pair are casual and relaxed as we begin our tour, though both of them were awake in the early hours of the morning checking in on the grid and their team.
Both were there back in 2008 when Eskom first introduced load shedding, so when it came to flicking the switch again a few weeks ago, it was like déjà vu, according to Van Heerden.
We’re ushered into a boardroom overlooking the “engine room”, where five technicians face a massive screen full of boxes on which figures change each second.
The boxes show the amount of electricity being used in South Africa at any point in time, and indicate the power generated by various stations as well as what’s in reserve. They also monitor the transmission lines that warn technicians of fires or faults in the system.
It looks complicated, but the idea is to balance demand for electricity with what’s being generated.
“If generation meets demand, we are fine. The problem begins when demand outweighs generation – and that’s when we decide to do load shedding,” says Van Deventer.
“I know that some people think we just wake up and think: ‘Where can we turn off the power today?’
“But the reality is, we only initiate load shedding when it is needed because if we don’t, the whole system will collapse.”
According to her, if this happens, the country will be left without electricity “for at least two weeks”.
“It will be a total blackout and not load shedding, as some people confuse the two,” she says.
The consequences will be dire for the pair because preventing a grid collapse is part of their performance contract, and both could be held legally responsible if things fall apart.
“We are not here to make people’s lives a misery but to ensure the country always has power,” Van Heerden says as we leave the technicians and engineers to do their painstakingly stressful jobs.