Like many politicians in South Africa, Geordin Hill-Lewis knows that citizens are disappointed.
The 35-year-old was elected mayor of his hometown of Cape Town in November as the country reached an unfortunate milestone.
In 2021, 14 years after power outages began to become routine, the country recorded 1,136 hours of power outages – a new record.
“I don’t know which is more appalling – whether we have this electricity crisis 15 years later, or now everyone finds it almost normal,” says Hill-Lewis, whose opposition party l ‘Democratic Alliance (DA) has long dominated. in the Western Cape and is also progressing in other metropolitan areas.
He and others are now trying to take matters into their own hands. Cape Town has announced its intention to start sourcing electricity from independent generators, bypassing the coal-dominated state monopoly Eskom power company, whose difficulties in meeting demand are crippling the economy.
“I just realized that this is not going to be fixed anytime soon and if we wait for Eskom to fix it, it will cause incalculable economic damage,” adds Hill-Lewis. “It’s not really enough for us to just raise our hands and say it’s a problem.”
His decision was made possible by electricity market reforms introduced last year by President Cyril Ramaphosa of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. This set the stage for a challenge to Eskom dominance.
While Ramaphosa’s decision gives more room for opponents such as the DA to win support from locals and has pitted him against some of his own party, it has raised hopes in some areas of a turning point in the problem that has held South Africa back.
However, the way forward remains fraught with challenges, amid concerns over energy equity and access, as well as global tensions over the pace of the transition to cleaner energy and where that leaves the heart of South Africa’s coal mines.
“I’ve always thought about it [solving the energy struggles] like two steps forward and one step back,” says Cape Town-based Chatham House Africa Program Researcher Christopher Vandome. “And you’re not sure how long those stages last.”
As one of the largest utilities in the world, Eskom operates a fleet of 15 aging coal-fired power plants with a nominal capacity of up to 47,000 MW, meeting 90% of the country’s electricity demand. .
But since 2007, it has struggled to meet that demand, weighed down by what now amounts to more than $25.4 billion. [£19bn] of debt accumulated over the years amid high costs, high interest payments, underinvestment and allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
That year it introduced periodic ‘load shedding’ – cutting off supply to certain areas when it cannot meet demand, giving residents notice sometimes as short as four hours before they were left behind. in the dark.
The cuts have forced closures in mining and industry and kept other businesses away, contributing to South Africa’s record unemployment rate of 34.9%, or nearly 75% for young people.