Saturday, January 19, 2008

the next thrilling instalment of our soapie…

Shopping South African style…

This was Woolworths yesterday, the tills and one or two lights running on emergency generators. Arriving and leaving were another story, it is an interesting exercise driving through a city without traffic lights at peak time!

If you live here, or follow South African blogs with any regularity, you will know that we have regular power cuts, which are euphemistically referred to as “load shedding” by ESCOM. (Which is a State run entity with a supply monopoly by the way, naturally if there was some healthy competition in the private sector this would never be happening).

Port St Francis last weekend... the light you see in the one window is candles!

Which brings us to the next thrilling instalment of our soapie…

Here in soapie land, we leave our police commissioner and his lawyers to wrangle about court dates, and get back to the National Prosecuting Authority, and particularly the Public Prosecutors Office. Having won round 2 against Zuma and round 3 against Selebi, they are turning their spotlight onto our national electricity supplier, ESCOM.

The plot so far:
It all seems to have started back in about February 2006, when The Nuclear Reactor at Koeberg got screwed …. No really, I mean it literally; someone dropped a screw into the main reactor!

This coincided with the other reactor being shut down for refuelling, so initially Cape Town and eventually most of the country was plunged into chaotic and expensive darkness. I heard an estimate on the radio this week that, according to the Cape Town Chamber of Commerce, the 3 day shutdown alone cost Cape Town 5 billion Rand.

I happened to be there for a design seminar during the crisis. Try and imagine what it was like attempting to get through rush hour traffic in a major city with not a single traffic light working!!!! And huge high rise buildings which rely on air conditioning for ventilation plunged into darkness, computers crashed, elevators jammed, shopping malls closed, security systems were disabled. They were prepared for short outages, but 3 solid days was more than most back-up systems could deal with. I had trouble trying to leave because Cape Town, and all the small coastal towns up to Knysna were without power, and so petrol stations were unable to pump fuel. Even those with generators battled, because their computers had crashed and the modern pumps could not operate without them. I eventually made it to a small country garage which had a small generator. It was like something out of Hollywood!

In the Echelons of Power, questions were asked. There was much scrambling about and covering of excessively paid butts, until it was finally admitted that the power provider already had less capacity to produce power than the existing infrastructure needed, even when no breakdowns were occurring, and had nothing in the pipeline to meet growing demand. We have been warned of ongoing blackouts around the country for years to come, at least until 2012!!

Apparently the ‘powers-that-be’ had not realised a few basics about running the country’s power grid.

  • Things wear out and plans need to be made well in advance to maintain/repair and eventually replace them.
  • Demand for power in a growing economy increases, and infrastructure needs to be planned for, budgeted for and put in place to supply extra power to meet the growing demand.
  • Supplying power to neighbouring dictatorships that have not paid their bills for years, while cutting power to paying consumers at home, and simultaneously ruining the economy of the country, is a bad idea.
  • Increasing charges to local consumers by extortionate rates in order to pay for one's blunders and charity to the northern neighbours only causes chaos at home, as consumers rebel and the economy suffers further.

So while they learn these lessons and try to do some damage control, the shutdowns have become a regular way of life across South Africa. It seems that, we will continue to get POWER ALERT screens popping up on TV every night, red or brown to say 'we are about to have a major shutdown unless people immediately save power, switch off all appliances, lights etc.', followed by either an orange one to say 'thanks, it is stabilizing', or darkness!

What makes it worse is that ESCOM seems unable to grasp the concept of forward planning, so instead of letting industry, hospitals, retailers etc. know when to expect outages, so that they can plan around them, they appear to just spring it on whichever area takes their fancy at the time. They have schedules on their website, but the reality and the schedules do not coincide.

Yesterday at Johannesburg General Hospital, a major surgery was underway when the power to the Hospital was cut, and it took 10 minutes for the Emergency generators to kick in with enough juice to run the life support unit. Luckily the doctors managed to keep the patient alive, but it was touch and go.

So now these are the latest developments in soapie-land:

To make up for their blunder, ESCOM are now fast-tracking the building of nuclear pebble-bed reactors around the country.... riding roughshod over strong public opposition to them. It is a frightening prospect to leave so much nuclear capacity in the hands of an entity which has so far displayed such a shocking lack of management ability. I just hope they have at least trained their technicians to stop dropping screws into the reactors!

In the meantime, flushed with success at having laid charges against both the President Elect, and the Head of the Police, our intrepid Public Prosecutors have asked ESCOM to answer some searching questions about the management of the country’s vital power supplies, and if the answers fail to satisfy them, this might just end up being the NPA’s hat trick of major prosecutions this year!

It won’t stop the power failures, but maybe while they are busy in court, someone competent can run things and make a plan? Anyone got Bruce Willis' phone number for us?


dot said...

Very interesting post. I'm not a "deep thinker" so the first thing I saw was your mention of Woolworths. Just the name took me back to days when we had different nice stores to shop in besides WALMART. I haven't seen a Woolworths in ages.

Jenty said...

Aaarghhh! The last new bulletin on Friday said another 5-7 years, so their first guestimate of 2012 is already being bypassed.

Old Wom Tigley said...

What a disgusting state of affairs, I truely feel for you and feel your anger and annoyance at this.
I do hope things improve and that certain heads roll.

imac said...

Good luck.
Interesting reading.

Suzi-k said...

Tom...funnily enough I am not as wound up about it all as I may sound, I find all the ironies and contradictions quite entertaining, and try not to get too stressed about all this. One way or the other we have to learn to live with it, so there's no point walking around in a constant state of irritation. I try to see the funny side, and I LOVE all the political satire and comics in the newspapers. At least, for now, we still have a free press.

Old Wom Tigley said...

I'm glad to hear that..:O)
Hopefully the satire can be used in a painting maybe.. like these cartoons. The folk who do these cartoons are as sharp as a knife.. we have many cartoonist that seem to be 'right on the ball' at happenings like this. I also think that Art at these times becomes very collectable as well... I suppose it's the passion it arousers at that time..

All the very best... I look forward to more ;o)

Suzi-k said...

tom, what a good idea, i could paint some large canvasses black and call them "lighting a la ESCOM" they should sell like hotcakes!

NatzG said...

Hey Suzi-k! Awesome coverage of the blackouts, with a wicked sense of humour. Thanks!

dunesza said...

I so enjoy reading your journal and your sence of irony and humour has me coming back for more on a regular basis! Although I chat to my dad (who lives on the rural otskirts of what used to be known as Pretoria) on the phone, and reading up on the Net about the state of affairs in good ol' SA, your blog post has me nodding & shaking my head in 'aye's and disbelieve, but also secretly thinking that 'only in South Africa', lol:)

:)Caren (now living in New Zealand)