Power play over power cuts

Power cuts have become a factor in Cape Town’s municipal poll, with the Democratic Alliance climbing in on a succession of blackouts this week.

”I have never seen such outrage. Now whites are going to vote,” said a senior Western Cape DA member, who admitted the levels of enthusiasm fell short of the intensity of the December 2000 poll that clinched the city for the DA.

DA mayoral candidate Helen Zille put the blackouts on the campaign scorecard as another African National Congress delivery failure. On Thursday she accused the council of wasting R6-million in taxpayers’ money, without going through a tender process, to establish the first regional electricity distributor.

And the Independent Democrats have weighed in with a call for a class action suit for compensation for lost business. ”Inadequate maintenance of the electricity supply network” amounted to negligence and was thus actionable, said ID mayoral candidate Simon Grindrod.

President Thabo Mbeki, faced with out-of-order traffic lights on some legs of his Cape Town canvassing campaign on Tuesday, declined to be drawn on the impact of the power cuts on elections. Instead, he said the issue was being addressed ”with utmost urgency” and ”at the highest level”.

The cuts — specific to the Western Cape, which receives its electricity from Koeberg nuclear power station, where one unit is damaged and out of commission — have shown up weaknesses on the national grid at a time when the government is seeking to boost economic growth to 6% through infrastructure investment.

An attempt by the Department of Minerals and Energy to deflect criticism backfired. Its assurances that Eskom chief Thulani Gcabashe promised to restore ”full power … at the latest by Wednesday” failed to materialise. Instead it became clear the blackouts would continue until the weekend.

Gcabashe, who cut short an overseas business trip, apologised after meeting the Western Cape government on Wednesday. ”I need to apologise. We deeply regret the situation we find ourselves in … We are doing all we can to recover.”

At a briefing on Thursday, the CEO said the Koeberg station was synchronised with the national grid early in the morning, but would take another 31 hours to reach full strength. Further power cuts are in prospect for as long as one of the two units remains down.

While Eskom has received initial draft reports on the damage to Unit 1, it has ”not come to a conclusion” on how a loose bolt found its way into the rotor, said Gcabashe. An investigation by security agencies is running alongside the technical probe.

Last Sunday, a combination of heavy mist and residual ash from recent fires sparked short circuits along the overhead power lines, according to Eskom. This followed an earlier trip-out at a Mpumalanga power station. The combined effects of these incidents in the early hours of Sunday led to the shutdown of the sole Koeberg power generators.

The electricity cuts follow an above-inflation hike of 5,1% in electricity prices from April 1. The National Electricity Regulator approved this increase, rather than the 6,6% Eskom had initially requested, in part to support its R84-billion rand infrastructure investment programme.

The cost of the power cuts to business is estimated to run into tens of millions of rands. The Cape Town Chamber of Commerce and Industry has called for an early warning system so that business can prepare itself for future cuts.

With the power cuts now threatening to run until the eve of the election, the situation could spell blackout for ANC rule of the city.

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Marianne Merten
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