/ 26 June 2023

How Eskom has left ‘smart cities’ in the dark

Load Shedding Jhb
Partially lit office buildings on the city skyline during a loadshedding power outage period, in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

South Africa, like most developing nations, is plagued with systemic issues of which the ongoing energy crisis has become chief among poverty, unemployment and inequality. Plans for more digitised, networked, and connected urban areas are facing a challenge. 

Load-shedding has become an anomaly in South African cities, significantly impacting the urban economy. The power supply system is under severe strain due to maintenance backlogs and a failure to build new power supply units to generate electricity to match economic and social development. 

Since 2008, Eskom has implemented load-shedding on an ongoing basis because of insufficient electricity supply to meet the demands of all its consumers. This year alone, we have had 167 days of load-shedding with each day costing R1 billion.  Eskom, a state-owned monopoly, supplies South Africa with 95% of its electricity, and 92 % of this energy production is fossil fuel produced, with their operations generating 1.08 tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt of electricity. 

The adverse effects of the energy crisis include struggling smart cities whose core function is orientated towards promoting the potential of information and communications technology to address urban challenges. 

According to the South African Cities Network, over 67% of South Africa’s population resides in smart cities, this is set to grow exponentially over the years. In South Africa, smart cities include the city of Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and Ethekwini. 

Smart cities leverage information, communication and other forms of technology platforms to engage citizens, manage the cities’ resources, inform evidence-based integrated urban planning and influence sustainable smart infrastructure decisions for the delivery of effective, efficient and reliable municipal services. 

The main objective of these cities is to improve the quality of life, efficiency of urban operations, services and competitiveness, while ensuring that the city meets the economic, social, and environmental needs of present and future generations. The overall strategic objective is to support South Africa achieve inclusive, livable, resilient, competitive and sustainable smart cities that are globally competitive. 

Energy is the crux of economic growth and development; therefore, a reliable supply of power is a critical prerequisite for the successful operation of smart city initiatives. 

The impact of the energy crisis on smart cities, which are still recovering from the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, has been far-reaching and is having major consequences for businesses, households, and individuals – thereby affecting everyone. 

Smart cities are complex and interconnected because they are composed of various sectors, ranging from the manufacturing industry, education, healthcare, transport and the business sector. 

Since the start of load-shedding many businesses that were attracted to the cities because of well-functioning smarter infrastructure that lowers operating costs, have had to close or down-scale their employee numbers. In Johannesburg, a Wimpy franchise that has been operating in the Fordsburg area for over five decades has had to permanently close down due to persistent power cuts. 

In a conversation with News24, the franchise owner Mr. Ebrahim says, “load-shedding has broken our back, people avoid areas where there is load-shedding or reschedule their day according to the load-shedding schedule, such measures draw business away.” 

In the city of Ethekwini, the popular Market Café has also joined the list of businesses shutting down because of the energy crisis. The smart cities’ interconnectedness affects various sectors. For instance, when businesses close down, households feel the impact as people lose jobs, and the transport sector, particularly the public transport fraternity, which plays a vital role in economic growth, also experiences consequences.

Furthermore, the quality of the cities is affected because the technology that is meant to directly improve the citizens’ convenience is non-functioning. For example, the automation of the cities to enable appropriate city functions to be delivered reliably and effectively without the need for direct human intervention. 

With Artificial Intelligence (AL) and the Internet of Things automating certain functions, such as water service delivery for efficiency, particularly concerning energy usage and resource management, thereby saving time and money is all compromised by the energy crisis. Initiatives such as public Wi-Fi, and street furniture with charging points are non-functioning because when there is no power network accessibility is limited. 

Streetlights and traffic lights are also not working, thus, increasing the level of damage and vandalism on infrastructure. Smart city technologies that are often promoted to curb criminal behaviour which include closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras, face and licence plate recognition, and other forms of access control are also non-functioning therefore confronting the already compromised safety in the cities. 

In a dialogue facilitated by the Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) highlighted the frequency and intensity of cable theft and vandalism of infrastructure that has increased during load-shedding, 12% of the theft and vandalism recorded were more than 100 incidents per load-shedding time per day. Of all the infrastructure impacted by load-shedding, cables and transformers are most affected through damage or theft. 

The costs to replace or repair damaged, vandalised, or stolen electricity distribution network equipment across the smart cities amounted to R1 602 300 million in this financial year. 

The urban poor households have also been disproportionately confronted by load-shedding. Basic services such as cooking and lighting are disrupted. Many households, particularly the low, middle-income levels who cannot afford extra energy costs have been forced to sleep on empty stomachs, with some going to school, work having bathed in cold water wearing creased clothes. 

Those who can afford it have managed to switch to alternative energy sources, although this has been an additional expense to their cost of living. Despite being in an urban setting, load-shedding has stretched the frame of inequality in South Africa.  

All the above-listed shortcomings confront the primary role of smart cities which is to create inclusive, livable, sustainable, competitive cities. The severe load-shedding implications across the different sectors of the cities have stretched exclusivity widening the gap between the rich and the poor, deepening unsafety, and compromising the needs of present and future generations concerning economic, social, and environmental aspects. Overall, the life of smart cities in South Africa is under threat. 

Hluma Ralane is a Project Coordinator: Africa-US Cities at the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS).