Lights off – and back on – in Johannesburg

Shortly after arriving in Johannesburg, CBS students had to adjust quickly to a mild inconvenience. The lights kept flickering on and off in the hotel, leaving some people in the dark in their rooms and leading to long waits for the elevator.

The outages continued over the next couple of days, causing students to experience a few seconds or minutes of darkness at restaurants, in corporate conference rooms or at other events around the city.

Blackouts are a regular occurrence in Johannesburg, where there is insufficient infrastructure to provide continuous electricity for all the homes and buildings. However, the outages have been especially frequent after a cyclone in Mozambique damaged some of the power lines. 

Cyclone Idai, which landed in Mozambique on Thursday and swept over parts of Zimbabwe and Malawi, may have killed more than 1,000 people, according to a report from CNN. Government officials and rescue workers are still assessing the damage and the lives lost.

For the residents of Johannesburg, the impact is felt mostly in the increased frequency of blackouts. The city announced Saturday that it would be scheduling more outages, a practice known as “load shedding” that is meant to prevent an overload in the system. Eskom, the main electricity company in South Africa, moved the city to Stage 4 load shedding, the highest level and the point at which the government can enact unscheduled power outages as needed.

Load shedding has been mentioned again and again during our company visits as an example of the many ways that South Africa is still very much a developing country. The nation is home to the largest stock exchange in Africa, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and it has one of the most mature banking markets on the continent. It also has a liquid currency that can be bought and sold easily. At the same time, the unemployment rate is high, inflation is problematic, and the currency is among the most volatile in the world.

Some residents in the Soweto township may not be able to afford generators, making them more vulnerable to the power outages caused by load shedding.

As part of their daily lives, South Africans must deal with a low-performing schools, traffic-jammed roads and regular power outages. Some of the business executives we spoke with acknowledged that poor people are affected most by load shedding because they cannot afford to buy a generator. That could include people who live in the poor neighborhoods known as townships, where the homes are smaller, worn down and lack many of the amenities available in the wealthier neighborhoods.

At the businesses we visited, the darkness would last only for the few seconds that it took for the generators to kick into play. For South African residents who don’t have those financial resources, the outages can last for hours. With more of the blackouts being unplanned, the daily consequences could be far-reaching.

— Jonnelle Marte ’19

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