Kane Jules

It is time to face the harsh reality: South Africa’s power crisis is spiraling out of control. Eskom’s proposed Stage 16 load-shedding framework is a grim indication of the bleak future ahead. Frequent and prolonged load-shedding has significantly impacted the daily lives of citizens and the country’s economy. Eskom’s coal-fired power generation fleet has deteriorated to a level that necessitates higher load-shedding levels, which is a direct result of years of neglect and mismanagement. While Eskom’s plans to develop a contingency framework for Stage 16 load-shedding may appear to be a prudent course of action, it is merely a band-aid solution to a problem that requires a more comprehensive approach.

Eskom’s primary focus should be ending load-shedding rather than pre-empting more cuts and electricity demand. The potential implementation of Stage 16 load-shedding, with its catastrophic impact on the country’s economy and daily life, clearly indicates that Eskom’s current strategy is not working.

Meanwhile, the power utility remains plagued by scandals across all quarters and recently revealed draft plans for more drastic degrees of load-shedding will do little to calm the nervous sentiment of businesses suffering under the current regime of rolling blackouts.

South Africa’s electricity woes have been well-documented, much to the chagrin of its populace and politicians in the face of massive internal and external scrutiny. At every stage of load-shedding, Eskom rations the country by a further 1,000 megawatts (MW) of power.[1] Up to this point, the highest level of load-shedding implemented has been Stage 6, with up to 6,000 MW removed from the grid. In real terms, this means that South Africans could be affected approximately 18 times for four days for up to four-and-a-half hours at a time, with a devastating economic impact. Stage 8 – the highest level previously planned for – has yet to be implemented.

However, the prognosis may have worsened with Eskom acknowledging its preparations for load-shedding beyond Stage 8. Load-shedding is governed by a South African Bureau of Standards document called NRS048–9:2019, a collection of specifications governing the quality of South Africa’s electricity supply. When pressed on whether a working group comprised of Eskom, its System Operator, and industry stakeholders would extend the load-shedding protocol beyond Stage 8, Eskom’s acting head of generation, Thomas Conradie, stopped short of admitting the schedule would go up to Stage 16. He replied, “The responsible thing is to make sure that this document caters for higher stages of load-shedding and that those schedules are being developed upfront [so] we have a more systematic approach if we require it.”[2]

If Stage 16 load-shedding were to be implemented, and Eskom continues with linear increases in electricity rationing, it would mean that up to 16,000 MW would be cut from the grid. This figure would equate to roughly half the total demand in South Africa. This would severely impact the country’s economy and effectively guarantee entry into a prolonged recession, as many businesses and industries would be forced to shut down during the extended blackouts.

The news arrives amidst a series of scandals surrounding Eskom, with one of the most recent coming in the form of criticism from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who alleged that the SOE was “not being honest about the extent of the generation units removed from the grid”[3] – implying that Eskom has been clandestinely moving to Stage 8 without permission of the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA).

The intensification of load-shedding last year led to the 25 July announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa of a series of interventions to address the problem, including the establishment of a National Energy Crisis Committee. During his 2023 State of the Nation Address (SONA), Ramaphosa followed this by announcing a National State of Disaster that would remove regulatory red tape on energy procurement – a move that was met with a chorus of criticism from those pointing to the government’s murky track record in similar scenarios, such as the emergency procurements made by the Department of Health during the pandemic.

The energy crisis was the main theme of the 2023 SONA, which spoke to the government’s R1.5 trillion Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET-IP), the president’s plans to appoint a Minister of Electricity in the Presidency, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, and a commitment to improving the performance of Eskom, with Treasury having subsequently finalised a solution to the SOE’s R400 billion debt burden and secured additional funding to purchase diesel for the rest of the financial year.

Despite efforts to provide some calm and reassurance to business and the electorate, Eskom’s recent boardroom-level public furor threatens serious political damage for senior officials of the ruling party and Eskom itself. The controversial tell-all interview with then-outgoing CEO Andre De Ruyter brought his turbulent tenure to an abrupt end as he cast accusations of systemic corruption and warned of troubled waters ahead. Responsibility for appointing his successor now looks likely to fall to Ramokgopa, whose tasks will include ending rolling blackouts by overseeing urgent repairs and bringing new energy to the grid.

Although well-constructed multi-stakeholder contingency plans, in and of themselves, are indicative of institutional strength and clever foresight, in South Africa’s case, this conclusion is unlikely to sit comfortably in the minds of the population. Recent events suggest that the energy crisis will remain a longer-term issue. While the probability of experiencing Stage 16 load-shedding appears low, and it is important to note that Stage 16 remains a hypothetical scenario, its implications cannot be underplayed. Stages 5 and 6 are becoming more and more commonplace as 2023 progresses, and it is not difficult to imagine winter’s onset being the darkest in some time.

To prevent the realisation of higher stages of load-shedding, government must prioritise the urgent repairs and new energy sources needed to bring Eskom’s infrastructure up to standard. The energy crisis is a long-term issue that requires a long-term solution, not a Band-Aid fix that will exacerbate the problem by destroying confidence.

[1] Kahla, C. (2021), ‘Load shedding stages explained: Here’s what you need to know’, The Citizen [Online], https://www.citizen.co.za/news/eskom-load-shedding-stages-explained/

[2] Vermeulen, J. (2023), ‘Stage 16 load-shedding schedules for South Africa — Eskom responds’, My Broadband [Online], https://mybroadband.co.za/news/energy/482007-stage-16-load-shedding-schedules-for-south-africa-eskom-responds.html

[3] Nyathi, M. (2023), ‘Eskom is not being honest about load-shedding’, Mail & Guardian [Online], https://mg.co.za/environment/2023-03-03-eskom-is-not-being-honest-about-load-shedding/