‘A shadow over the new dawn as hope is load shed in SA’

Load shedding has not only cast a murky shadow over the sheen of the new dawn but has sunk many South Africans into a deep and dangerous pothole of despair, says the writer. Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Load shedding has not only cast a murky shadow over the sheen of the new dawn but has sunk many South Africans into a deep and dangerous pothole of despair, says the writer. Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Dec 17, 2022


By Kim Heller

Fellow South Africans, don’t worry, be happy. Don’t despair even in the daze of the new dawn, where electricity and festive cheer will both be in short supply this December.

The pretty ornate lights woven lovingly and carefully across Christmas trees by those lucky young ones and the warm and hearty festive meals prepared by the ever-caring elders are unlikely to form part of this year’s Christmas albums in South Africa. As we head towards Christmas, Eskom is set to gift us with even more darkness. It has been a record year with close to 180 days of load shedding.

Load shedding has not only cast a murky shadow over the sheen of the new dawn but has sunk the many South Africans into a deep and dangerous pothole of despair. Eskom, cited as the greatest threat to South Africa’s economy by local and international financial institutions, was described as being in a “death spiral” by its former CEO, Phakamani Hadebe, in 2019.

But “don’t worry ‘bout a thing, Cause every little thing gonna be alright”. These lyrics from a song by Bob Marley capture the president’s wail in his latest newsletter to the nation this week. The president writes that although the year is coming to an end without several challenges being resolved, “we have good reason to believe things are getting better”. This is the same out-of-tune song that he has sung for years now and the nation is growing increasingly weary and wary as it faces a black Christmas.

For many, the promises of President Cyril Ramaphosa are as believable as the long-awaited Santa Claus who never arrives with a load of gifts on Christmas Eve.

In 2015, Ramaphosa, in his capacity as deputy president, charged with the responsibility of oversight of Eskom, along with other state-owned enterprises, told us that in 18 months to two years, we would have forgotten the challenges that we had with relation to power, energy and Eskom. Be patient, Ramaphosa said way back in 2015. The problem is going to be resolved, he said.

While for most South Africans, hope has long been shed,  the president himself, appears to have bucketloads of hope.

“Our great country will rise above adversity,” he writes in his newsletter, “as it has done so many times in the past.”  The president stresses the need to keep “closely focused on what needs to be done to make next year better”. We must not give up, the president says. “We are a people of optimism, even as we brace against harsh winds. We are a people who love our country and wish for its success. We are a nation that perseveres, and that never gives up.”

The rampant leadership shortfalls of the day, the helter skelter nature of electricity blackouts, and the long nights of energy insecurity threaten to cancel out the prospect of a better tomorrow. For those unfortunate to be in hospitals at this precarious time, there may not be a tomorrow. For those who are struggling to breathe and just stay alive as ventilators and other essential emergency equipment in hospitals cease in the last stages of load shedding, 2023 may never dawn.

But “don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright”. After all, the president himself says that one day there will be light, but he just does not know when. For now, Ramaphosa himself seems to be in the dark about when load shedding will come to an end.

In a shock announcement this week, the Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla said that his department has run out of money to provide for the fuel to run generators at hospitals during load shedding.

Currently, with just 77 of the 400 hospitals and clinics in the country exempted from rolling and increasingly high waves of load shedding, we are on the cusp of a national health disaster.

Things are generally looking gloomy. The country’s largest hospital, Chris Hani Baragwanath in Soweto, is reported to have a backlog of 11 000 surgeries and years-long waiting lists for operations and other medical procedures.

The president says he is having sleepless nights about the electricity crisis. “Eskom keeps me awake at night,” he told a gathering in Cape Town last weekend. He assured people that the problem of load shedding was top of mind, and was being dealt with “with the seriousness it deserves”.

The president’s words are seriously alarming. Perhaps the people of South Africa are not being taken as seriously as we deserve to be. If load shedding is indeed being treated as a priority, and “with the seriousness it deserves”, then clearly the government is failing. For the frightening statistics on the economic damage that load shedding is causing point to immeasurable damage and jeopardy.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has estimated that the cost of load shedding to the country’s economy during this year alone is R560 billion. And the real-life pain of human loss and suffering during these blackouts is immeasurable.

News24 health journalist Jesse Copelyn provides a heart-breaking account of the death of a patient at the Charlotte Maxeke hospital in Johannesburg due to load shedding.

She writes, “In the emergency room at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital in July, a doctor was holding his patient’s eyelids open with one hand and moving a penlight across the man’s face with the other. The patient, in his early 20s, was unconscious. Dried blood covered his hair and face. ‘We all really wanted to help him,’ the doctor recalls, ‘but there was just nothing we could do. It was heartbreaking.’ By the time the power came back on — three hours after the patient had been booked into the hospital — neither of the man’s pupils moved.”

Happy black Christmas, folks!

* Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.

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