South Africa’s energy crisis explained

Electricity blackouts lead to rising crime and economic hardship and add to pressure on ANC

A protest against the recent electricity crisis in Pretoria, South Africa on 20 January, 2023
A protest in Pretoria against the recent electricity outages
(Image credit: Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

South Africa’s energy crisis is such that grieving relatives are being advised to bury loved ones within four days because power cuts mean bodies in mortuaries are decomposing.

The public statement by the South African Funeral Practitioners Association last week was just the latest example of how the country is being turned upside-down.

“Car crashes, opportunistic criminals, rotting food, decomposing bodies, bankrupt businesses, and water shortages. Welcome to life under South Africa’s power blackouts,” said CNN.

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What is causing the crisis?

The African National Congress (ANC) has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, and under its rule Eskom, the state-owned power utility, “has become synonymous with corruption, crime, and mismanagement”.

EskomSePush, a monitoring app, has calculated that in 2022 alone, there was the equivalent of four months’ worth of power cuts, meaning large parts of the country have effectively been without electricity for a third of the year.

According to Sky News, Eskom “blames an ageing fleet of coal-fired stations that consistently break down”. Despite access to vast coal reserves, “these stations generate little more than half their capacity – as demand for power consistently outstrips supply”, said Sky’s Africa correspondent Yousra Elbagir.

With essential maintenance work on coal and nuclear power stations set to make the situation even worse in the coming year, Eskom has implemented a policy of “load-shedding” – otherwise known as rolling blackouts – leading to prolonged power cuts that leave residents without electricity for up to five days at a time.

“South Africa used to have a well-functioning energy sector, the envy of Africa, but Eskom’s poor performance is now a problem for all the country’s residents and the South African economy,” said Forbes.

What has the impact been?

In a country with some of the highest inner-city crime rates in the world, “night-time power cuts have been detrimental to public safety”, said Sky News. Policing in extended periods of darkness has become harder, while failing home security systems have given criminals a field day in unsecured properties.

Yet it is the impact on the economy that is the most damaging. People struggle to get to work only to find their offices operating without electricity. Power outages have left small businesses and farmers without refrigeration, impacting South Africa’s food security, driving up prices, and placing an even greater strain on stretched household budgets. Johannesburg has even been “subjected to renewed water-supply cuts as electricity shortages disrupt pumping operations”, said Bloomberg.

“Even simple daily tasks need to be arranged around loadshedding schedules, including meal planning, travel times, work that requires internet connectivity,” said CNN. “For some people, not having access to reliable power can be the difference between life and death.”

What is making matters worse is that the effects of the blackouts are not being felt evenly, with wealthier South Africans able to afford private generators to keep the lights and other essentials running.

What is the solution?

For many, the power crisis is a symbol of South Africa’s decline under the once all-powerful ANC.

The Mail & Guardian reported the deep anger felt by citizens across the country, including John Mnisi, from the Tembisa township between Johannesburg and Pretoria. He says “things have deteriorated to such an extent that life under apartheid almost seems more palatable in comparison”, the paper said. “Those were difficult times, but the country was not in the shape it is in now,” Mnisi is quoted as saying.

“Opposition parties are not letting the opportunity of piling pressure on the government pass,” said the Mail & Guardian. “Nineteen interest groups, including political parties, have filed a court challenge to force the state to mitigate the load-shedding crisis and to have it declared in breach of the Constitution for failing to ensure the sustained supply of electricity.”

“One solution,” said Forbes, “is to auction off power plants to private companies and allow them to compete to offer power. A profit motive would result in better performance.”

But, said the finance magazine, “privatising the power plants that feed the grid is politically unpopular within the ruling alliance of the ANC, the Communist Party, and trade unions. Auctioning off power plants needs political support, which is not coming. Instead, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is shuffling the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic by moving Eskom into the Ministry of Energy.”

The situation is so bad, said CNN, that Ramaphosa “is considering declaring a national disaster, similar to one in 2020 at the height of the Covid pandemic, which had a devastating effect on the country’s economy”.

But in the meantime, “hope is waning as cuts worsen and communities experience the brunt of economic inequality”, concluded Sky News’s Elbagir.

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