It was a bit like glamping at first. When the lights first went off just after 10 am on Wednesday last week, I had a load of washing in the machine. It would be over a week before I could drain that water.
When we heard there’d been a fire that had nuked the workings of the Retief Street substation we were pretty relaxed at first. We had the inverter to power up the freezer and buy us some time for the food I’d splashed out on for New Year.
I’d also stocked up on frozen food because the Covid-19 surge means I want to limit grocery store visits. We decided to be circumspect about using the lights, TV and other appliances linked to the inverter to save the battery power for the freezer. We knew it would take some time before current surged through our circuits again. As we watched on the various social-media groups how others were battling with no power, we counted ourselves lucky.
The guy came up with the glamping analogy. “We have all the home comforts, just without a geyser, stove and freezer.” True. So we braaied, had basic candlelit suppers and heated water on the gas for our showers. A lengthy power outage buys you time, I realised. There was no TV or computer (my laptop died) and limited cellphone use because charging them was a pain.
We found other ways to amuse ourselves. We had two days of good rain and luxuriated in rare afternoon naps. We played “remember when …” and got out a novelty chocolate chess set I’d given him last Christmas that we’d never used. As we faced off, I ate one of his pawns and he ate one of my bishops. They tasted pretty horrid so we decided they had more value as chess pieces than confectionery. For the subsequent games we used a peanut as the pawn and a cashew nut as the bishop.
On New Year’s Eve, we sat chatting in the lounge without candles or other light, passing time quietly. It was pleasingly restful. And then, as unexpected as a pixie in your porridge, we saw it! A magical firefly zigzagged its way past the lounge window. We hadn’t seen one for years, but in the natural dark state of the garden, this wonder was revealed. It was, for us, a spiritual experience.
During the days it wasn’t raining, we sat on camping chairs in different spots in the garden, watching the birdlife and commenting on how clever we were for the fact that our roses were blooming so beautifully. (No credit to nature — we took it all, at that moment.) On a whim, we took a drive up to a vantage point above the city one twilight evening and just admired the view below. The crepuscular light combined with Pietermaritzburg’s lights twinkling with our Table Mountain in the background and a view of the green, green hills around the city, reminded us how breathtakingly beautiful the place we live in is — from a distance.
Then on Saturday afternoon we got completely reckless. I went upstairs from making tea on the gas to find he’d put some music on. “What about saving the inverter?” I asked.“Ah, this hardly uses any power,” he said, cavalier-like. So, I complained about his choice of songs. It’s a well-rehearsed ritual; I say down with Robert Plant, the bloody Beatles (can’t stand them) and that dreadful Tom Waits. “Let’s rather have peace and quiet,” I said. “Okay then, you can choose the songs,” he said. I grinned. In the midst of a prolonged power outage and a devastating pandemic, we danced. We used up our pent-up energy in this way for almost five hours. My playlist was the anthems of our youth and middle age. We pushed the couches back and had a wild party for two. It was wonderful! As exhausted as we got, we danced some more. We do that way too seldom. We went to sleep with the freezer’s digital display still lit.
When I went to fire up the gas cylinder for coffee on Sunday morning, the freezer was dead. So was the inverter. And that’s when it became less fun. I started worrying about my food. We kept the freezer doors shut and held thumbs, hoping Msunduzi would restore the power soon. Surely, by today, we thought? Hah! That was a fat joke with the City having the last laugh. I felt sick as I threw it all out on Tuesday with the rubbish collection.
I admit that by Monday, Day Six, when I had to start work at the office at 5.40 am instead of logging in at home, I started getting grumpy. We couldn’t just pop over to someone’s house for a decent supper and a hot shower during the pandemic. Lukewarm showers with gas-heated water, mixed with the cold tap’s cruel offerings in a yogurt container, were less fun now.
Power outages are nothing new. We’re all used to them. Hell, we’ve had loadshedding and Msunduzi to keep us all well-practised. But, I resented having to go to the supermarket every day for ice for the cooler bags when I’d had the foresight to stock up so I wouldn’t have to expose myself to Covid-19 unnecessarily at the shops.
Last year I wrote a column about the fact that I was profoundly worried about reliable services and infrastructure in the city. “I don’t want to seem alarmist, but seriously, I’d rather be prepared to some extent, than have blind faith in the city’s ability to provide faultless services going forward,” I wrote.
Mayor Mzimkhulu Thebolla responded saying I was indeed alarmist. His rebuttal was good though, and I was happy he wrote it.
READ: There is no doomsday
But, I don’t back down from my thoughts expressed in that column. So again today, I urge you all to make preparations for when services implode, like the electricity supply did for thousands of residents for up to a week. Make sure your gas cylinders are full with fittings that are not rusty (like mine were). Get a whistling kettle. A watched gas kettle NEVER boils. Think about solar lighting options and shop conservatively for your freezer. If there are holes in your freezer storage, fill them with containers of water to keep you going for when the next substation fails. If you want a generator, or solar panels and can afford them, go for it. Get ready however you can.
We warned you in The Witness this week, that other primary substations are also at risk of catastrophic failure. Businesses, please prepare. You stand to lose money if you don’t. Readers, I still maintain you’d be wise not to put all the eggs of your trust into the basket of the city. Let’s become as self-sufficient as we can.
The trust issues with Msunduzi are real. Remember that in 2017 it returned a whopping R196,6 million to National Treasury, because it did not spend it on much-needed projects in time. The bulk of this was meant for electricity upgrades in the city, some coming from the Integrated National Electrification Grant. That work could have helped us now. They had the money, but they didn’t do it!
The public no longer want to hear that it was previous administrations that created the mess and that we have “turned the corner” to a bright future where the city is well-run. Those previous administrations were appointed by the same party. So, who in the ruling party takes responsibility for this? Who?
And, if anyone steps up to answer this, can they please write a column for us explaining why they’ve allowed us to get here. We’d also like a heads up on what new and cruel catastrophe awaits Msunduzi’s residents in 2021.We want to be better prepared.
• Stephanie Saville is editor of The Witness.