South Africa’s Power Crisis Is a Warning for the World

Joseph Dana
4 min readMay 31
A coal-fired power station in Metsimaholo, South Africa

South Africa has struggled to keep the lights on for more than a decade. The country’s aging coal power plants have fallen into disrepair. Resources set aside for fixing the infrastructure have been squandered. The national electricity utility Eskom is rife with corruption and mismanagement stemming from the tenure of former President Jacob Zuma. The result is rolling blackouts, known locally as load shedding, that have crippled the economy.

Eskom officials have recently warned of even higher blackouts ahead of winter arriving in June. Increased power outages could see South Africans without power for up to 16 hours in a 32-hour cycle. This is a sad story of isolated government mismanagement. But it also has international dimensions that climate change and governance policy makers worldwide should follow closely.

According to many analysts and politicians in South Africa, the power crisis is a self-inflicted wound. Under Zuma, Eskom was turned into a virtual piggy bank for corrupt officials who would drain the utility’s coffers of taxpayer money earmarked for vital repairs. In recent years, power plants have been the scene of diesel theft as Eskom has used diesel generators as a backup for the aging coal plants.

The result is historic power outages. Eskom interim CEO Calib Cassim said the power utility had about 47,500 megawatts of installed capacity but could only use 26,500 megawatts due to plant breakdowns. Thus, Eskom must resort to various levels of power outages known as stages to make up the deficit. The country is bracing for the record high level of “Stage 8” power outages, severely impacting businesses and people’s daily lives.

“It is going to be quite hard for businesses to survive when we go beyond Stage 6. We already see that at Stage 6 load-shedding the impacts are quite dire — prolonged periods at Stage 8 will be devastating,” Business Unity SA environment, energy and climate manager Happy Khambule told Business Day.

Ironically, South Africa has sizable deposits of coal. Aside from the horrific environmental toll of burning coal, South Africa could have some form of energy independence if it could weed out its corruption and mismanagement problems. In addition to coal and other mineral deposits, South Africa has…

Joseph Dana