South Africans in the dark as privatization battle rages over energy crisis

Arslan Ahmed Rana sits in his tailoring shop in Johannesburg.
Arslan Ahmed Rana's Johannesburg-based tailoring business has lost around 30% of its revenue in recent months due to the South Africa energy crisis. (Antonia Mufarech/MEDILL)

By John Volk

Medill Reports

Arslan Ahmed Rana, 33, sits quietly in the back room of his Johannesburg tailor shop. His blue-checkered suit flatters his build, and he’s taken great care to coif his hair and line up his short beard. But the dark circles under his eyes tell a different story.

He pushes his palms into his knees and sighs as he lifts himself from his chair. “We’ve been talking for an hour,” Rana said. “Did you see any clients come in?”

No. In the middle of a Wednesday at the peak of summer, the sharply dressed mannequins have provided the only company. No dress shirts rifled through. No ties held up in the mirror.

Over the past six months, Rana has lost about 30% of his revenue due to the worsening energy crisis in South Africa. Eskom, the state-owned electricity generation company, has imposed rolling blackouts, also known as load shedding, in the country continuously since 2017 to mitigate stress on the grid. These blackouts have now reached a critical mass. Stage 6 load shedding, on an eight-stage scale, has become commonplace, meaning homes, businesses and even traffic lights lose power for up to 12 hours a day.

As experts project ongoing load shedding for at least the next two years, South Africa finds itself at a reckoning over state ownership of public utilities — a fight that crushes regular people like Rana in the middle.

* * *

Power lines run over gardens in Olievenhoutbosch, a township north of Johannesburg.
Power lines run over gardens in Olievenhoutbosch, a township north of Johannesburg. Eskom controls generation, transmission and distribution of electricity. (Jordana Comiter/MEDILL)

At the heart of this battle lies a piece of legislation that would transform the core structure of the South African electricity system. The Energy Regulation Amendment Bill, first introduced last February, would dismantle Eskom and open electricity generation and distribution to the private sector. President Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted it as a key objective of his energy agenda in his annual State of the Nation address in February, announcing the bill would be brought to a vote later this year.

“It essentially is the thing that allows us to break up the monopoly of the electricity provider,” said Happy Khambule, the environment and energy manager at Business Unity South Africa. BUSA, a nonprofit lobbying group that represents a major cross-section of South African industries, helped craft and advocate for the amendment bill. “There was traditionally one provider. Now there’s going to be thousands.”

Almost 85% of South Africa’s electricity generation comes from coal, and the root of the load shedding crisis rests primarily in the unreliability of old coal-fired power stations and the decreasing availability of coal, according to Khambule. In breaking up Eskom, which controls electricity generation, transmission and distribution, Khambule says the flexibility of privatization can accelerate South Africa’s renewable energy transition while easing the load shedding burden on people like Rana.

He points to other legislative victories BUSA has secured, like the ability individuals now have to run a private generator without a license and distribute that power to anyone so long as it’s not connected to the grid.

Rana’s shop, like many in South Africa, relies on a generator to keep his business afloat when the power goes out. However, the one he has only powers half his sewing machines and costs an extra 50,000 rand ($2,700) per month on fuel. With bespoke suits selling for around 5,000 rand, he needs to sell about 10 more suits a month just recoup fuel costs – a major strain with the plummeting number of walk-in customers, who used to make up 30% of his clientele.

The exterior of Rana's shop in Johannesburg.
The exterior of Rana’s shop in Johannesburg. (Antonia Mufarech/MEDILL)

He’s considered installing solar panels, but he can’t afford the 300,000-rand cost for two.

“The last couple of months, it’s actually getting to a point where we thought that we have to do something in order to survive,” Rana said of purchasing the generator. “If we won’t be able to make our break-even point, then our business is closed down.”

* * *

Mbulaheni Mbodi and Phakamile Hlubi-Majola sit together at one end of a large wooden table as rain pounds the roof overhead. The yellow wall behind them frames them with the logo of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the largest union in the country’s history, boasting over 360,000 members. Mbodi, the union’s national secretary on Eskom, sports a camo patrol cap and a long black beard. Hlubi-Majola, the national spokesperson, sits upright with her short black hair dyed blue and cat-eye glasses. They call each other “comrade.”

On the Energy Regulation Amendment Bill: “We reject it outright,” Hlubi-Majola said.

“The standard technique of privatization is to defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry and you hand it over to private capital,” Hlubi-Majola said. “That’s literally the story of Eskom where five years ago it was running well, had excess energy, and now we have rolling blackouts.”

NUMSA contends that the African National Congress government has sabotaged Eskom for years while placing blame on workers for personal economic gain. The ANC, it argues, appointed a CEO in 2019 with no background in energy to ensure the poor maintenance of coal power stations and deepen the load shedding crisis.

“It’s like getting a dentist to operate on you when you’ve got a tumor,” Hlubi-Majola said.

Mbulaheni Mbodi, left, and Phakamile Hlubi-Majola argue the South African government has orchestrated the load shedding crisis to gain personally from resulting privatization.
Mbulaheni Mbodi, left, and Phakamile Hlubi-Majola argue the South African government has orchestrated the load shedding crisis to gain personally from resulting privatization. (Antonia Mufarech/MEDILL)

The ANC has privatized renewable energy dating back to the start of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme in 2011. Through that program, the government has held six “bid windows,” which offer several large-scale renewable energy projects to private companies. In some cases, these projects have replaced coal stations the government closed.

In the fifth bid window two years ago, the ANC awarded 12 of the 25 projects to President Ramaphosa’s brother-in-law. According to NUMSA, this is a clear sign of corruption – a way to cash out while the party faces a falling vote share. If this is what’s happening while most electricity generation is state-owned, full-scale privatization would be an abject disaster, NUMSA says.

As the fight over South African electricity escalates toward privatization, NUMSA pledges to escalate right back to keep power in the people’s hands – taking the government to court and organizing mass strikes.

“The ministers do not suffer load shedding,” Mbodi said. “Once the rich can afford solar panels, the poor are going back to the apartheid years where electricity was for the few.”

* * *

Rana didn’t listen to the president’s State of the Nation address. He’s tuned out much of the country’s politics these days.

“We get lots of clients here from Eskom, from city power,” Rana said. “They come to us for suits, and we ask them, ‘Is there a way?’ And we don’t get any hope from them.”

He has two kids, a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old, and when the power goes out, the usual challenges of keeping them calm and fed become next to impossible.

The night before, his wife had been crying. They both moved to Johannesburg in 2009 to escape a similar energy crisis in Pakistan.

“Why is this happening?” she said. “Why can’t these people do something about it?”

If the crisis worsens further, Rana said he may have to move again, a nightmare scenario with a young family now. And while the privatization fight continues, it’s families like Rana’s that will continue to suffer.

John Volk is a magazine specialization reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @jk_volk.