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South Africa’s president can’t keep the lights on, just as elections approach

resident Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. WIKUS DE WET/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

PHOLA, South Africa — President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa assumed power promising a “new dawn.” But just over a year later, he can’t keep the nation’s lights on.

A month before a national election, the worst rolling blackouts in years are regularly plunging South Africans into the dark. With annoying frequency, warnings of “load-shedding” pop up on cellphones, referring to the power cuts imposed to prevent a collapse of the national electricity grid.

Takeout dinners by candlelight are hastily arranged in the cities. Meals are prepared over coal braziers instead of electricity in places like Phola, a township in a region dotted with power plants, about 75 miles east of Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city.


“You wake up and there’s no hot water. You can’t bathe, you can’t iron,” said Victoria Nkosi, 48, a longtime resident of a government-built house in Phola. “Why is there load-shedding when we’re surrounded by power plants?”

The short answer is that the blackouts are the result of years of mismanagement and corruption in the state-owned utility, Eskom. They are also evidence of how difficult it is for Ramaphosa to reform the nation’s state enterprises and secure stable electricity for South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa’s most advanced economy.

The blackouts are contributing to another year of lackluster economic growth in South Africa, a deeply unequal society that desperately needs strong, sustained expansion to create the foundations of a post-apartheid economy.

Every sector of the economy, from the mining giants and car dealers to big retailers and informal entrepreneurs, has been hit badly by the blackouts. Eskom, which produces about 95 percent of the nation’s power, is now regarded as the biggest risk to South Africa’s economy, according to the national Treasury and outside financial experts.

In Phola, Frieda Madalane, 54, wakes up just after midnight to start cooking fried dough bread, called vetkoek. Starting before dawn, she sells the bread outside her home to neighbors going to work, making about $20 a day.


But her profits are now reduced by the amount she spends for kerosene to fuel the lamp she uses during load-shedding.

“And one time, there was load-shedding for one full day and I lost everything in my refrigerator,” Madalane said.

On May 8, South Africans are scheduled to cast ballots in the sixth general election since the end of apartheid in 1994. The long-governing African National Congress is expected to garner the most votes, but its margin of victory remains the biggest uncertainty.

A strong showing could give Ramaphosa a mandate to carry out reforms in his party and in government, his allies say. But a poor performance could lead to a continuing standoff between Ramaphosa and his party rivals, or even fuel an outright challenge, party officials and political analysts say.

Weeks after becoming party leader in late 2017, Ramaphosa forced out of power Jacob Zuma, who had more than a year left in his second term as South Africa’s president. Ramaphosa, who had served as Zuma’s deputy for four years, promised to root out corruption, particularly in state-owned enterprises.

Ramaphosa quickly shook up Eskom’s board and eventually appointed a highly respected minister to overhaul Eskom and other state enterprises.

As the nation’s biggest state enterprise, Eskom was the biggest target for corrupt ANC politicians, their business allies, and civil servants during the Zuma years, according to ongoing public inquiries into state corruption.


Eskom was “the main theater where corruption, state capture was taking place,” Jabu Mabuza, chairman of Eskom’s board, said during recent testimony at a government corruption inquiry.

South Africa was plunged back into darkness late last year, as Eskom began imposing load-shedding for the first time in three years.

And the situation has become far more critical than in the Zuma years. So short of energy is Eskom that it has been forced to cut power at the height of summer in the southern hemisphere, and even on weekends when demand is lower because many companies are closed. The crisis peaked in recent weeks as Eskom imposed several consecutive days of “stage 4” load-shedding — the highest level — and even talked of the need to create higher stages of cuts.

A main cause of the recent blackouts, experts say, is two new but underperforming coal-fired megaplants. Years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, the two plants had been expected to relieve stress from South Africa’s aging power infrastructure.

But the plants, which have yet to be completed, are only partially operational because of frequent breakdowns — the result of shoddy construction, experts say. One recent morning, at the Kusile plant — only about 12 miles northwest of Phola — giant construction cranes hovered above three of the six generating units.

“Eskom has gotten itself in a situation where the plants have started to come online, and they just don’t work,” said Jesse Burton, an expert on electricity policy and coal at the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Center.


Established in 1923, Eskom provided electricity in the last few years of apartheid to about a third of South African households, a small percentage of them black. Now 90 percent of households have electricity, a result of policies by the ANC, which promised access to power as part of democratization.

At the same time, Eskom became the source of jobs and contracts for the politically connected. Its bloated workforce increased by half between 2003 and 2017.

Ramaphosa recently proposed a partial breakup of Eskom — dividing the company into generation, transmission, and distribution businesses under one holding company. The split would make each entity more competitive, he said.

The breakup, experts said, would also reduce the potential for corruption and ease South Africa’s transition away from coal.

Though still rudimentary, Ramaphosa’s proposal has caused a fierce and immediate backlash from inside the ANC and the party’s traditional allies, including the South African Communist Party and labor. Wary of losing jobs, the biggest union representing Eskom workers, the National Union of Mineworkers, has threatened to shut down the national grid in the days leading up to the election next month.

Ramaphosa expressed confidence that the blackouts would not hurt his party at the polls.

“The challenges Eskom faces emanated from our recent past, and many people are aware that there were a lot of wrong things that were being done in Eskom,” he told the local news media.