Load shedding sheds light on our divisions

The throbbing of generators has become the white noise of the lived reality of South Africa’s affluent suburbs, a bizarrely more comforting accompaniment to the early morning discordance of burglar alarms. In the townships, it’s the stench of burning rubber and armed militias around the illegal reconnections at Eskom substations.

We have always been, in Thabo Mbeki’s immortal words, two economies; the haves and the have-nots and these are the two sides of how South Africa is dealing with the prospect of the next 18 months of rolling power cuts. Both of them show the quintessential South African trait of ‘n Boer maak ‘n plan; those that can afford to merely opt out and pay to escape the ravages of a mismanaged and terminal services, the others just circumvent it altogether. The true elites in the lushest of the green housing estates with their high walls shielding them from the dystopia don’t even get scheduled for load shedding, such is South Africa’s yawning inequality.

Those fortunate to have jobs in a country where joblessness is climbing and youth unemployment is high to the point of counter-revolution, spend more and more time stuck in the load shedding induced gridlock on their way to and from work.

It’s dire. Levels of resentment are starting to spike, especially among the moaning middle classes feeling squeezed on either side, not feeling they’re getting their money’s worth for their tax rands – and about to lose their medical aids and private hospitals and even have their pensions rerouted into the bottomless maw of the SOEs.

The only upside is that the communication has improved with the Eskom crisis, the false promises that spectacularly bit the presidential backside before the New Year had even properly begun seem to be over; replaced with a hard-nosed pragmatism. It doesn’t mean we are closer to finding sustainable solutions; like properly opening the door to renewable energy or independent power producers, instead of clinging to Kusile and Medupi, the over-priced monuments to state capture which, if they don’t bankrupt us will asphyxiate us – or flirting with nuclear.

It also doesn’t mean either that we are any closer to finding solutions to the seemingly intractable but wholly unsustainable culture of non-payment in Soweto. Resolving both will take a statesmanship that is light years from timidly tiptoeing through a self-inflicted minefield of political patronage and incompatible constituencies.

But what are we going to do about water?

Gauteng lives in the shadow of Day Zero much of the time – the water supplies that we have are compromised; literally by the untreated effluent pumping straight into the Vaal and the burst pipes in the ageing infrastructure – but we are like ostriches.

What happens when the taps run dry? Qwaqwa gives us a hint: brutal riots followed by only five of the promised (biblical-esque) 5 000 temporary water tanks.

Platitudes and commissions of enquiry, easily sidestepped by sicknotes that say nothing, won’t help us. It’s time for real, unequivocal and resolute leadership. But that appears as chimeric as A Night (without) Candles.

Originally published on the 8 February 2020 in the Saturday Star