Gatvol South Africans vent over load shedding as protest action looms 

Civil society organisations, unions, political parties and South Africans at large are venting frustration over stage 6 rolling blackouts plaguing day-to-day life in South Africa – with some attempting to mobilise and take their anger to the streets.

Organisations such as Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), the Democratic Alliance, and other political figureheads from across the political spectrum have expressed frustration and anger over the current state of affairs.

The hashtag #NationalShutdown has been trending on Twitter since Sunday (15 January) as disgruntled citizens vent.

On 12 January, the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) granted permission for a significant increase in electricity prices for the next two years – exacerbating the cost of living for cash-strapped South Africans across the board.

The regulator approved an 18.65% increase for 2023 and a 12.74% increase for 2024 as part of the fifth Multi-Year Price Determination for the failing national power utility Eskom.

Eskom applied for a 32% hike in 2023, which would have ended up being 38% upon implementation. Despite the granted increase being far lower, it still significantly outstrips inflation.

Just as Eskom was granted the increase, the country was plunged into all-day stage 6 load shedding – extending the period and intensity of rolling blackouts, with many South Africans facing between 10 and 12 hours of outages a day.

The double blow to everyday South Africans has pushed some to the edge of protest.

South Africa’s biggest unions, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the Federation of Union South Africa (Fedusa), have expressed their dissatisfaction with Eskom.

Cosatu said that the most recent increase by Nersa is insensitive and careless to the plight of workers and added that it would be a devastating blow to those struggling to survive in an economy that is still reeling from pandemic lockdowns and rampant inflation.

“The continuous above-inflation increases that Eskom has received since 2006 are nothing more than the legalised robbery of consumers. These increases only serve to pickpocket workers of their meagre wages, suffocate businesses and deny the economy the chance to reduce unemployment,” said Cosatu.

Fedusa, in rejection of the latest price hike, noted that rolling blackouts and unaffordable living standards could not become the new normal for South Africans.

Consumers are buying electricity that they never get to use fully, yet the service remains expensive, problematic, and unreliable, said the federation.

“In the private sectors, the levels of load shedding are killing all efforts to create and sustain jobs; short time and company closures are common. The increase in tariffs more than three times the current inflation rate will force companies to save money elsewhere, and jobs will be lost.”

While talk of a national shutdown is starting to echo across social media, no firm or coordinated plans are yet to materialise. However, opposition parties are moving to capitalise on the anger and are planning their own marches.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) plans to march on the ANC headquarters at Luthuli House in Johannesburg on 25 January against the “ANC-engineered electricity crisis.”

“We do not accept, and we cannot afford, the 18.65% increase this year or the 12.74% next year, which is a total increase of 33.77% over the next two years.”

“Households are battling to put food on the table. Businesses are struggling to pay their staff. Stage 6 load shedding is costing South Africa between four and six billion rands per day,” said the leader of the DA, John Steenhuisen.

The urgency of the power crisis is reflected in the fact that President Cyril Ramaphosa decided to stay in South Africa instead of attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) to sell South Africa as a place for foreign investment.

The president’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya, on 15 January 2023, said that Ramaphosa had been engaged with the leadership of Eskom and the National Energy Crisis Committee (NECCOM) with more meetings and briefing sessions on the cards.

Protest but no change

Peter Attard Montalto from research consultancy firm Intellidex questioned, however, where all the “gatvol reactions” to load-shedding and other crises will ultimately lead.

In a note published on Monday (16 January), the analyst said that deepening inequality in the country could divide public response, with those who are able to mitigate the worst of load shedding becoming complacent, leading to further ills for those who cannot.

“My fear is we reach the second-best outcome, which is everyone that can afford it goes (effectively) off-grid – the famous demand tipping point with higher tariffs will be very much in action – and then complacency sets in as people can, just about, go about their everyday lives.”

“Perhaps the tough-love message needed at the start of the year is that the end to myriad crises is not close at hand and that things will get worse before they get better — they will probably have to before the larger change in the political economy occurs to allow reforms to catch up with where they need to be,” said Montalto.

The researcher expects that those who can afford to install the likes of solar or inverters will continue to exist relatively unaffected; however, those less fortunate will struggle more – in turn widening inequality within the country.

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