I’m sure we’ve all experienced that feeling when something causes you to question the meaning of a commonly used word or phrase you’ve always taken for granted. The most recently this happened to me was last week, with the phrase ‘rush hour’. The traffic was so congested that it was taking me over an hour to travel the 10 kilometres between home and work. In fact I averaged about 75 minutes per trip, which, if you care to know, is an average speed of a pathetic 8 kilometres an hour – that is not what I would consider ‘rushing.’
The reason traffic was so bad is because half the traffic lights were out, and the reason half the traffic lights were out was because of, you guessed it, load shedding. The implementation by Eskom of stage 4 load shedding on 11 February caused far more chaos than merely inconveniencing motorists, it cost the South African economy a fortune and caused a range of knock-on effects.
The numbers that are doing the rounds are staggering. The Rand immediately lost 1% against the Dollar, and credit rating company Moody’s reiterated that Eskom remains the single biggest risk to South Africa’s fiscus. With the department of public affairs having described Eskom as being technically insolvent and its existence beyond April in doubt at the rate it’s going, the most pessimistic estimates are that a period of load shedding similar to what we saw in early 2008 could wipe as much as 50% off the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – that’s up to a R2,4 trillion loss.
Experts estimate that each stage of load shedding costs the country roughly R1 billion per day, i.e., stage 1 costs R1 billion, stage 2 costs R2 billion, and so on. In total, as at the end of 2018, load shedding was believed to have cost R1,4 trillion since it started being implemented.
Eskom’s debt stands at R420 billion and it can barely afford the interest payments; more than half that debt is guaranteed by the government, which accounts for 15% of the national debt. Eskom’s own latest projections point to it posting a loss of R20,1 billion for the year ending March 2019 – that’s much more than the R15 billion it forecast in its mid-year results just three months ago.
One of the knock-on effects is a spike in the rate of crime across the country. Over and above the advantage provided by reduced visibility during the night time, and the shutting down of security systems, Johannesburg City Power’s website has a handy schedule to help criminals plan where and when to commit their crimes – whether those schedules are actually kept to is another story.
Cellular networks are also severely affected by vandalism, occurrences of which double during load shedding. An article by Business Insider SA reports that MTN spent more than R100 million repairing acts of theft and vandalism in the past year. Cell C state in the article that power outages and failures already cause 80% of its technical problems on a typical day of operations, but during load shedding nearly 30% of its network, including cables and towers, is affected by vandalism, compared to 10% to 15% on a typical day.
The cellular networks can keep running normally for the most part because they have battery and generator backup power, but the strain placed on the batteries can damage them or shorten their life. Electrical surges when power is restored can also damage base station equipment.
It is an absolute certainty, then, that Eskom is going to be in the news a lot this year, particularly when the issue starts getting over-politicised in the run-up to national elections. Added to all that – at the risk of being all doom and gloom – winter is coming.
Brett van den Bosch