President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa was forced this week to cancel a trip to Davos by an escalating energy crisis that is inflicting rolling blackouts on the continent’s most developed economy.
Ramaphosa swapped his trip for Davos due to emergency meetings on the “ongoing energy crisis,” his spokesperson Vincent Magwenya posted on Twitter on Monday.
South Africans have endured power cuts for years but 2022 was the worst on record with 205 days of rolling blackouts, as aging coal-fired power plants broke down and state-owned power utility Eskom struggled to find the money to buy diesel for emergency generators.
So far this year, there have been outages every day. The situation worsened again last week when Eskom said it would implement more cuts because of breakdowns at 11 coal-fired generating units.
“Loadshedding” as it’s known locally was escalated to level 6, which entails removing 6,000 megawatts (MW) worth of power from the grid in order to rebalance demand and supply.
This can result in outages lasting 5 hours at a time and totaling 12 hours a day for households and businesses. At peak times, demand in South Africa averages between 28,000 MW and 34,000 MW.
However, there was a slight improvement on Tuesday, but Eskom cautioned that the blackouts could escalate again at short notice “due to the inherent unreliability of the coal power station fleet.”
The situation is due to years of mismanagement and systematic corruption believed to be a key reason why the state utility has been unable to keep the lights on.
Under South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma, Eskom went through repeated leadership changes.
Evidence presented to the Zondo commission suggests that this was part of a plan by Zuma and his allies to steal taxpayers’ money from the utility, including through lucrative coal supply contracts.
Zuma and his allies have denied any wrongdoing.
The utility’s own financial statements reveal that 104 confirmed cases of fraud and corruption were registered with the South African Police Service over the year to March 2022.
But it remains to be seen whether Eskom’s corruption problems can be rooted out.
According to multiple reports the current CEO André de Ruyter, who has announced his intention to resign after trying to tackle corruption and overhaul the troubled utility, was allegedly the victim of an attempted cyanide poisoning last month.
South Africa’s National Energy Crisis Committee, a body run out of the President’s office, has proposed several measures to ease the crisis in the short term, including importing energy from neighboring countries and buying excess energy from private producers.
South Africa’s finance minister Enoch Godongwana told Reuters that loadshedding would be “a thing of the past” in the next 12 to 18 months he said this on the sidelines at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Writing by Tersoo Nicholas