SA May Be On The Verge Of A Total Blackout

South Africa is currently experiencing some of the most intense load-shedding in the last four years, with no convincing signs of improvement. We explain the four Stages of load-shedding here, and beg the question: Is South Africa on the verge of a full-blown blackout?

After weeks of uninterrupted, consistent electricity, South Africans were blindsided by the sudden return of load-shedding this week, with the announcement of Stage 2 shenanigans on Sunday and Monday. This soon escalated to Stage 4 by Monday evening, when, in a period of just five hours, seven of Eskom’s generating units threw in the towel and went offline. 

Those carefree January days of light and heat and WiFi are long gone, and we may be facing protracted days of darkness, and cold, and socialising with our families by candlelight. 


But hey, none of us really expected it to last, did we? And we couldn’t possibly expect it to go off without a hitch when that dark day finally returned – and so it didn’t. Eskom remained true to character and made a fine mess of the load-shedding, particularly in Johannesburg. 

Both City Power and Jozi’ s fine residents were caught with their pants down on Sunday morning, due to the city and Eskom running on completely different schedules. This caused entire sub-stations to be load-shed, instead of the rotating block by block approach usually employed. 

The schedules, apparently, have since been aligned, but this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the calamities currently engulfing the beleaguered power utility.

By Monday morning, traffic was a fiasco and mobile networks were just barely – if at all – of any use. Cell C, Rain, Vodacom, MTN and Telkom Mobile all experienced connectivity issues countrywide, with multiple base stations impacted by the blackout. 

By evening, traffic stood gridlocked in the pouring rain and the dark with motorists crawling down the wrong side of the road to find a way home. 

While Eskom laboured to stabilize the grid, SA experienced some of the most intense blackouts in the last four years.

Eskom is arguably the hugest, most consistent risk to South Africa’s economy, currently losing up to R500 million per month, with load-shedding itself costing the economy anything between R20 – 100 billion per month. According to energy analyst, Chris Yelland, Stage 2 load-shedding could cost a productive SA economy around R2 billion a day. 

If 2019’s load-shedding is gearing up to be anything like early 2008 (except that 2008 saw Eskom make a profit), this year’s GDP Q1 could see growth cut by as much as half. No modern economy can operate without power, and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s proposed strategy to split Eskom into three separate entities (which has been outright rejected by trade unions) will likely do very little to solve the problem. 

This begs the question – how close is South Africa to a complete and total blackout? When will the lights go out and just not come back on again?

What Are The Key Problems At Eskom? (Simplified)

There seems to be no end in sight for Eskom’s deepening financial and management woes. The power utility is in constant conflict with unions over proposed job cuts, municipalities have adopted a nonchalant culture of non-payment (currently a combined R18 billion in arrears) and the company itself is shouldering over R400 billion in debt – growing by the minute.

Eskom needs to rake in over R200 billion in tariff revenue per year – and will reportedly lose R2 billion for every 1% of the tariff hike application not granted by Nersa. The company has requested a 17.1% tariff hike in 2019, 15.4% in 2020 and 15.5 % in 2021. In order to survive, it will need every last decimal percentage. 

In simple terms, Eskom is currently using one credit card to service the debt on another credit card, which, as anybody presently living in an empty refrigerator box under a bridge will tell you, just isn’t sustainable for very long.  

Unless Eskom can make more money, it will inevitably find itself trapped and flailing in a metaphorical headlock by debt servicing – even with further government bailouts. It’s the end of the rope. 

Of course, this presents its own set of problems. The higher Eskom pushes electricity tariffs, the more South African businesses and households opt for going off-grid. Less people paying Eskom means that Eskom isn’t making money, thereby further increasing the tariffs. 

We’re in the mouth of madness. 

Another unpopular (or popular, depending on how you look at it), but more sensible solution is for the company to cut jobs, despite unwavering (and sometimes violent) protest from workers and trade unions. Eskom, at this moment, employs 33% more staff than necessary – all of which are four times overpaid by global averages.

Then, the company’s older power stations are collapsing due to decades of neglect, and the newer stations – the coal-fired Medupi and Kusile giants, built to the tune of R400 billion – just aren’t delivering reliable, consistent output because they’re incomplete, over-budget, behind schedule and an overall disaster in general.    

Adding to that, a history of corruption, state-capture and gross mismanagement have only further contributed to the impending meltdown we’re facing today. 

There’s just no straightforward way to deal with the Eskom problem. 

Eskom is in crisis and the risks it poses to South Africa are great. It could severely damage our economic and social development ambitions. We need to take bold decisions and decisive action. The consequences may be painful, but they will be even more devastating if we delay.” – Cyril Ramaphosa

Load-shedding Stages Explained

Eskom has stated that load-shedding will be used only under emergency circumstances. So, it’s likely to pounce at any given moment, then. 

Four main Stages have been developed (though we may be moving on to eight in the near future), based on the possibility of risk. Load-shedding, in most instances, will be rolled out in 2-hour blocks across the country, except for many areas in Johannesburg where it will occur in 4-hour blocks to coincide with City Power’s 4-hour schedule.

In order to ensure that no damage is done to the hopelessly delicate power system, an additional 30 minutes has been added to the above time periods to allow for switching of networks. 

You can check your area’s load-shedding schedule on Eskom’s website, but good luck making sense of it. We surely couldn’t.

• Stage 1 requires the least amount of load shedding. It takes place three times over a four-day period for two hours at a time, or three times over an eight-day period for four hours at a time. It allows for up to 1,000 MW of the national load to be shed.

• Stage 2 doubles the frequency of Stage 1. Load shedding is scheduled for six times over a four-day period for two hours at a stretch, or six times over an eight-day period for four hours at a time. It allows for up to 2,000 MW of the national load to be shed.

• Stage 3 increases the frequency of Stage 2 by 50%, meaning that you will be scheduled for load shedding nine times over a four-day period for two hours at a time, or nine times over an eight-day period for four hours at a time. It allows for up to 3,000 MW of the national load to be shed.

• Stage 4 doubles the frequency of Stage 2. You will be scheduled for load shedding a savage twelve times over a four-day period for two hours at a time, or twelve times over an eight-day period for four hours at a time.

• Stage 5 is when Eskom authorities come straight into your house and blow out the candles. Just kidding. We laugh only to keep from crying, quite hysterically. 

And then – as is naturally expected of the end-times – we may be subject to additional, unscheduled load-shedding, depending on the state of the country – Grid! We meant state of the Grid.

So, what are the chances that South Africa will be hurled headlong into a sudden and complete blackout? By the looks of it, it only takes a misstep here and a miscalculation there, and we’ll be in the thick of it. 

The fact that Eskom can’t even provide South Africa with electricity on a Sunday, in the summer, gives us much to think about. 

Indeed, the deep silence accompanied by load-shedding in the dark of the night may just afford many people the opportunity to ponder how they voted, come May elections.

Of course, the problem, itself, just can’t wait that long.