At exactly 28 minutes past seven last night I was watching my favourite soapie Isidingo when electricity suddenly went off. I was unexpectedly yanked from my fantasy world of Barker Haines, Sechaba Matabane and Priya Kumar to the hard reality of South African life where electricity is increasingly becoming a rare commodity.
For half an hour I sat on my couch in darkness and pondered the new reality of most South Africans. Being 52 years old it occurred to me that except for a short moment in 2008, I have always had electricity in my life. Even during the dark days of apartheid, excuse the pun, electricity was supplied without fail to black townships by the apartheid regime.
In my ESKOM-imposed darkness, my mind drifted to Gauteng. It hit me with a certain clarity that the African National Congress suffered a ten percent loss of support from the electorate in last year’s general elections compared to the previous one in 2009. One of the reasons bandied about in this major bleeding by the ruling party was e-tolling. Hitherto, nothing had caused the ANC so much trouble than the e-tolls on the beautiful roads of Gauteng. E-tolls pitted the ANC against its Alliance partner the Congress of South African Trade Unions. E-tolls created an unheard of strange political realignment whereby Zwelinzima Vavi and Hellen Zille were on the same side against the ANC government, a spectacle of some sort indeed.
While the provincial and national ANC are battling to find a solution to the e-tolls, a tornado emerged from nowhere to hit the nation with a vengeance
For those with short memories, the country suffered a short spell of load shedding in 2008 when Thabo Mbeki still ran this country. He apologized to the nation and took responsibility for the electricity crisis and promised that plans were in place to correct the situation. In September that year he was recalled by his party as president of the Republic of South Africa. Load shedding disappeared.
Load shedding has returned with a vengeance and Eskom is warning that the country faces a total shutdown, Malamulele-style, if the citizens do not save electricity and the organization is not allowed to take away electricity every day in what is now fashionably known as load shedding. This is the phenomenon that took away my moment of fantasy last night. What was new with last night’s load shedding was the fact that power was not taken away for the two hours we are accustomed to, it was taken away forever. As I write this piece the following day, there is no electricity in the Bendor area. It has been more than twelve hours!
I now believe that it is true that the country is facing a bleak energy future in the next few years. Load shedding is here to stay and South Africans must get used to the idea of living in a rural third world backwater where the government simply can’t provide a modern basic necessity like electricity to its citizens.
For the ANC government load shedding is going to be a huge political cost. I shudder to think what’s going to happen next year when the party goes on the campaign trail for the 2016 local government elections. Imagine ANC cadres going on a house to house campaign when those targeted households have no electricity because of the ANC government. While the e-tolls hit the middle hard in Gauteng, load shedding does not discriminate on the basis of class. It hits the poor in their rural villages and sprawling townships; it hammers the middle class in their twenty-year bonded houses; it pounds the rich in their estates and holiday homes ; it pulverizes the entire economy. That is load shedding.
I don’t think I personally understand why we are where we are today in terms of electricity shortage and the extent of the crisis. One thing I am sure of is that this is the biggest crisis for the ANC since it came to power twenty years ago. There is going to be an enormous political cost to this thing.
I do not envy president Jacob Zuma as he prepares for his most important state of the nation address since he came to power in 2009. The threat of the red berets that has dominated the media in the last few months pales into insignificance compared to the crisis of electricity. The president will not be able to repeat the ridiculous explanation he gave at the January 8 statement in Cape Town. He will lose all credibility as the leader of this country if he took this historic moment to blame apartheid instead of telling the nation what his government is going to do to resolve this crisis. It is time for leadership and accountability for Msholozi.
Should the ANC fail to address the energy crisis facing the country before the 2016 local government elections, you can be assured that the metros of Tshwane, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela bay will be there for the taking. And the consequences will be, to borrow an unfortunate phrase, “too ghastly to contemplate.” Load shedding will turn to vote shedding for the ruling party.