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Electricity and Development: The Challenge of South Africa

February 12, 2008


Two recent articles about electrical power generation problems in South Africa demonstrate the inescapable tie between development and the availability of electricity [“Rotating Power Outages An Equalizer in S. Africa,” by Craig Timberg, Washington Post, 20 January 2008 and “Power Failures Outrage South Africa,” by Barry Bearak and Celia W. Dugger, New York Times, 31 January 2008]. Timberg writes about rolling blackouts that spreads the pain of having no power equally among the rich and poor.

“South Africa’s infrastructure, designed by apartheid-era planners to serve primarily a small white minority, is groaning nearly 14 years after the onset of multiracial democracy. The new era’s economic growth has brought an unprecedented rise in traffic jams and housing demand, and power shortages have become so widespread that they have idled vast swaths of the continent’s most important economy for hours at a time in recent weeks.”

South Africa is now experiencing what many other African nations have experienced for years — an unreliable power supply. It is a problem that also plagues Iraq and other developing countries. Unreliable power generation undermines efforts to create sustainable development. The problem in South Africa is that demand for electrical power has outstripped the supply.

“The blackouts are the result of surging demand and stagnant supply, exacerbated by a failed push toward privatization that made it difficult for Eskom [a state-owned utility] to build the power plants needed to serve new customers in this country of 44 million. From 1997 to 2005, demand rose 30 percent faster than supply in South Africa, according to U.S. Energy Department statistics. The problem has worsened dramatically in the past two years, analysts say. About 70 percent of South Africans now have access to electricity, roughly double the percentage under apartheid. Eskom predicts supply shortages will last for the next five to seven years, until several new plants can be built. … The disruptions over the past two months have been massive. Traffic lights have gone dark. Factories have abandoned motorized assembly lines, leaving workers to make products by hand. Thousands of stores without electricity have been forced to turn away customers and throw away spoiled food.”

Bearak and Dugger report that the blackouts were at first sporadic and short then increased in frequency and length.

“At first, the power blackouts seemed a mere nuisance, the electricity suddenly dead for two or three hours at a time, two or three times a day. Radio announcers jocularly advised listeners to make their morning toast by vigorously rubbing two pieces of bread together and wisecracked about amorous uses for the extra darkness. But after three weeks of chronic failures —after regularly irregular vexations with lifeless computers, stove tops and stoplights — public forbearance has given way to outrage. This nation, long a reliable repository of cheap, plentiful electricity, finds itself pitifully short of juice. The government has confessed to an ‘electricity emergency’ and has begun a program of rationing for industrial users. This is a mortifying turn for a country that considers itself the powerhouse of Africa and resists comparisons to its underdeveloped, famine-plagued neighbors.”

Investments in critical infrastructure are expensive and long term. Power plants can’t be built quickly and that is the bleak truth now facing many South Africans.

“Electricity shortages, now expected to be a fact of life for the next five years, are more than an embarrassment. They threaten continued strong growth here in a nation that accounts for a third of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic output and ranks among the world’s top 25 countries in gross domestic product. Because South Africa is an engine of growth for the region, a slowdown here would also affect its neighbors, undermining global efforts to reduce poverty and damaging South Africa’s own drive to slash its woeful unemployment rate of 25.5 percent.”

The government of South Africa has known for nearly a decade that this day was coming. It didn’t ignore the problem, but it was unsuccessful in enticing private businesses to built new power plants. In the meantime, it delayed any new construction projects by Eskom. When the green light for new projects was finally given, it was too late to prevent the shortages they are now experiencing. The result is growing frustration and slowed development.

“South Africans are appalled by the daily interruptions to their lives. Workers sit idle, televisions flick into darkness and silence, elevators stall between floors, gas stations cannot pump, cakes remain forever half-baked. Every intersection with disabled traffic lights becomes a four-way stop, with drivers in each direction maddeningly delayed as the endless lines of cars inch forward.”

The only people pleased by this development are those selling small portable generators.

“Expensive gas-fueled generators can reawaken the light, and worried merchants and wealthy homeowners have quickly bought the machinery. Now the equipment is scarce. Mark Haycock owns a hardware store in the city of George in Western Cape Province. ‘I have four suppliers, but they tell me that I’ll be lucky to get more generators in by March,’ he said.”

In October 2006, I wrote a post about The Coming Blackouts in America. It was based on a New York Times article by Matthew L. Wald, about a report by the North American Electric Reliability Council that warned that the supply of electrical power is not keeping up with demand [“A Power-Grid Report Suggests Dark Days Ahead,” 15 Oct 2006]. The report indicated that “the amount of power that could be generated or transmitted would drop below the target levels meant to ensure reliability on peak days in Texas, New England, the Mid-Atlantic area and the Midwest during the next two to three years.” With politicians still debating over whether to permit new coal-fired or nuclear power plants to be built, the time is rapidly approaching when some areas of the United States might find themselves facing challenges similar to those in South Africa. Sustained development, even in developed states, demands reliable power.

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