/ 23 September 2022

Blackout: Municipalities brace for the worst

Powerout Eskom Gettyimages 1240152263
Small- and medium-sized enterprises need and deserve a more predictable load-shedding to be in control of their destiny. Photographer: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Eskom has cut dead suggestions that South Africa could soon be in the grip of a national blackout, but despite the utility’s efforts to allay such fears, some of the country’s biggest municipalities are bracing for the worst.

In Johannesburg, the recent high stages of load-shedding have wreaked havoc on municipal infrastructure, hamstringing service delivery. 

Michael Sun, the member of the mayoral committee (MMC) for environment and infrastructure services, said the municipality would not be caught off guard in the eventuality of a “Hollywood-style” blackout.

‘Good luck’

“I have certainly spoken to our executive mayor Mpho Phalatse’s office to say that we need to convene an urgent disaster management forum meeting and that we bring all stakeholders on board … to say, should this happen — should we even get close to a complete blackout — we have a plan,” Sun told Mail & Guardian this week.

“This is what we are going to do in terms of electricity, water, healthcare, emergency services, going down to something as basic as food supply. We need to start to prepare ourselves, because we are certainly not going to wait for Eskom to tell us that it is going to be stage eight this evening and for the weekend, so good luck.”

A complete blackout, which would happen if the carefully balanced grid collapses, is unlikely. Load-shedding is implemented to avoid this very situation. 

On Sunday, after Eskom announced it would escalate load-shedding to stage six, chief executive André de Ruyter said the utility was doing its level best to avoid a total system collapse. “I don’t think that is an imminent risk. I think this is something that is managed and can be avoided,” he said.

Load-shedding headaches

But with South Africa moving closer to stage eight — the highest level of load-shedding,  beyond which Eskom would instruct provinces to remove several megawatts from the grid — municipalities have already gotten a taste of what a total blackout might look like. In this scenario, households would grapple with more than 12 hours of load-shedding.

Buckling infrastructure, water cuts and theft are some of the headaches municipalities have complained about over the last week. If load-shedding worsens, the situation would rapidly deteriorate as resources are stretched.

In the country’s other economic hub, Durban, frequent electricity disruptions have strained infrastructure, leading to power trips, said eThekwini spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela. 

“High levels of load shedding have a much bigger economic impact on our commercial customers as frequent load shedding halts production, placing thousands of jobs in jeopardy,” Mayisela said.

“Should there be a total blackout, there are processes in place to restart the grid but we are always working to prevent that critical stage.”

The City of Cape Town, which has forged ahead with plans to rid itself of Eskom’s control, has acquired additional generators as backup, said departmental spokesperson Mark van der Heerver.

“The city has been using generators for emergency supply for hospitals and water supply, and our clinics have backup uninterrupted power supply systems (ups). We also have gas turbines to protect critical infrastructure. We have also deployed security teams and police to monitor these infrastructures, in case crime does occur,” he said.

Ekurhuleni, which has been battling with its ageing infrastructure and continued power outages, said it was prepared for the worst and would continue to provide services for residents.

Ekurhuleni’s MMC for water, sanitation and energy Senzi Sibeko said to avert the impact of a blackout, the metro would open access to reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity and also incentivise private power generation. 

“The city is in the process of getting the independent power producers [projects] that were supposed to go online early next year to go online early because we do not have assurance that Eskom will not fail,” Sibeko said.

“To protect our residents, we also have been acquiring many generators that will keep the lights on and keep the water on. The plan is also to use diesel to keep the pumps running especially in the water interruptions.”

The heart of darkness

In Tshwane, criminals have already taken advantage of the darkness during rolling power cuts to steal cables. Earlier this week, the MMC for utilities and regional operations Daryl Johnston warned that there could be water shortages. “Any level of load-shedding is difficult,” Johnston said in an interview.

“For a municipality, the difficulty is only compounded. The thing is, we try as far as possible in terms of critical infrastructure, our wastewater treatment plant and also in our water network, but those are obviously reliant on pumps … If your power is out for a couple of hours, it is not a train smash. But once you start entering these longer periods, it does start posing problems.”

The higher load-shedding stages, Johnston said, “provides the perfect timetable for thieves”.

Guarding electricity cables is very difficult, he added. The city’s medium voltage cables run about 10 000 kilometres. The Tshwane metro police department only has about 4000 members. 

“We shouldn’t have to be thinking about this. We shouldn’t have to be worrying about it. We should just be focusing on what we need to do as a municipality,” Johnston added.

A blackout, Johnston said, would signal “a total collapse” as infrastructure that might usually be exempt from load-shedding is also hit, bringing critical services to a standstill.

In 2019, the Water Research Commission published a report on the effect of load-shedding on water provision, using Tshwane as a case study. The research also looked into the impact of a total blackout.

According to the study, in the event of a normal blackout — in which Eskom’s black-start facilities kick in — it could take two days to restore power to Gauteng and longer for the rest of the country. This scenario could trigger civil unrest.

In the event of infrastructure damage, it could take as much as seven days to restore power, resulting in loss of life and socio-political unrest, the study found. If the black-start facilities are damaged, the country would be plunged into darkness for over a month.

Eskom says it would take three to four weeks to fully restore power following a grid collapse.