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In Zimbabwe, when the economy hit its all-time low, basic commodities such as water and electricity were suddenly precious. People went days without both and when they were available, it was a sporadic supply. You would see buckets and dishes left on taps to collect any water should it pour out at an unexpected hour. In time, people became so used to it that when things normalised the electricity and water supplies were seen as a big deal, not a basic right.
Now, the same situation is slowly creeping into South Africa.
For one of the better economies on the continent, it is shameful that we now have electricity and water supply problems. While paying hefty taxes to maintain a good standard of living, you still see reports that some neighbourhoods have no power for hours on end. What is frustrating is that the power cuts are never scheduled as Eskom would not want to be seen as inefficient.
So when you lose power while cooking or at a mall – as happened at Cresta in Joburg the other day – the impression you should get is that it is a power failure and not official load-shedding. It is the same thing really, because you are basically without power and most of our urban livelihood is not possible without it.
Which brings us to American Blackout, a National Geographic show that looks at what would happen should the US lose power because of a cyber attack. The speculative outcome is told over 10 days and documents how people would survive in the dark. It takes you to the dark time of the 9/11 attacks when some people were trapped in destroyed buildings without electricity, food or medical supplies.
We now depend a lot on cellphones and sometimes they help us in sticky situations, but even they need electricity to function. So as much as we may want to deny it, those three little holes in the wall make a huge difference in our lives.
It is sad that National Geographic would rather go with a Utopian cyber attack as the reason why the US may have blackouts when it is already prone to electrical problems. There are reports that some places in America go without electricity for hours at a time.
They call Africa the “dark continent” not because of the pigmentation of most its inhabitants, but because of its once unexplored status. We have our own cities with power stations throughout the more than 50 African countries, but we rarely have the electricity to sustain them. If you drive through Maputo or Lagos at night, the general source of light is your car’s headlights as most of the street lights don’t work.
In Africa we generally depend on alternative means of power, from generators for those who can afford them and gas and fire for the lesser privileged. Whatever it is, we make do; we have been conditioned to do so.
The same can’t be said for the first world because they are “so developed” they can’t lower themselves to basic alternatives. That is why it makes sense that a show like this has been modelled on the US because for them power cuts are a big deal, whereas we have been persuaded to believe that it is just part of life.
Because National Geographic is good at what they do, you will get some useful info on how to survive the next blackout that is definitely coming.
• American Blackout airs from Sunday at 10pm on National Geographic (DStv channel 181).