Dead Chickens and Decaying Bodies: Inside South Africa’s Power Outage ‘Pandemic’

Johannesburg, South Africa CNNCar accidents, opportunistic criminals, rotting food, decomposing bodies, bankrupt businesses and water shortages. Welcome to life under the power cuts in South Africa.

Last week, the dire extent of the outages was revealed when South Africans were advised to bury dead loved ones within four days.

In a public statement, the South African Funeral Practitioners Association warned that mortuary bodies were decomposing rapidly due to the relentless power outages, putting enormous pressure on funeral homes who were struggling to process bodies.

The situation is so dire that the country’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, is considering declaring a national disaster, similar to one in 2020 at the height of the Covid pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on the country’s economy.

Last week scores of supporters of the opposition Democratic Alliance party marched through the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town under heavy guard to express their frustration at the ongoing power outages.

State-owned utility Eskom is conducting widespread power outages, known locally as load shedding, several times a day to avoid complete grid collapse.

Congestion in the power system throws the grid off balance and Eskom has said controlled outages are necessary to ensure reserve margins are maintained and the system remains stable.

While the country has been experiencing constant power outages for years, planned power outages have become routine since September 2022, affecting every segment of South African society.

For some people, not having access to reliable electricity can be the difference between life and death.

Before her death in October 2022, Lis Van Os was on oxygen for 17 hours a day. Her stationary oxygen machine required grid power, which made periods of load shedding extremely stressful, especially when power didn’t return as planned, her family said.

Her daughter, Karin McDonald, was forced to explore backup options like inverters and a portable backup oxygen tank, which only lasted for a short time.

“Towards the end of[her life]power outages caused a lot of anxiety for everyone,” she said.

South Africans experienced more than twice as many power outages in 2022 than any other year. And in 2023, things are set to get even worse.

Even simple daily tasks need to be arranged around load-shedding schedules, including meal planning, travel times, work that requires an internet connection.

From preparing baby food to running the fans in the summer heat, lack of access to electricity makes daily life for South Africans a challenge.

Maneo Motsamai, a domestic worker in Johannesburg, says the absences prevent her from doing simple tasks like cooking.

“I boil water to cook cornmeal (corn porridge) and the stream goes. I can’t eat, it’s a waste. I can’t handle it,” Motsamai told CNN.

Pumping stations can’t deliver water and many small businesses without access to backup power are closing stores and laying off employees, according to people CNN spoke to.

Thando Makhubu runs Soweto Creamery, an ice cream parlor in Jabulani, Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. His family pooled small benefits they received during the Covid-19 pandemic to build the business but are now feeling the pressure from power outages.

In early January, the store was without power for 72 hours when power did not return as planned. Thando was forced to shell out money for diesel to power their generator and keep all of his stocks from melting. He says the outages are costly and dashed their hopes for expansion.

Bongi Monjanaga, who runs a startup cleaning services company that operates across Johannesburg, says the outages are affecting every part of her fledgling business, like running electric cleaning equipment, entering and exiting premises when security gates aren’t working, and that Internet to invoice customers and complete tax compliance documents online.

“I find myself in this misery just trying to get started. I’m just trying to grow,” she says.

The escalation of power outages is also of deep concern for South Africa’s food security, driving up prices and putting an even greater strain on strained household budgets.

As modern agricultural practices increasingly rely on electricity for irrigation, processing and storage of crops, load shedding is having a huge impact on agricultural production.

Gys Olivier, a farmer from Hertzogville in the Free State province of east-central South Africa, says he and other farmers in the area have been forced to throw away hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of seed potatoes because the cold chain was broken’ – (the Process of keeping products cold throughout the supply chain.)

Due to water scarcity, there is also less demand from producers as pumping stations rely on electricity to operate.

“We’ve done everything we can to ensure food gets to the table at a very good price, but farming has become so capital intensive,” says Olivier.

Meanwhile, livestock and poultry die before they even reach the slaughterhouse.

A gruesome video circulating on social media shows workers removing 50,000 dead broilers from a farm in the North West Province. The birds suffocated when power outages brought ventilation systems to a standstill. The financial damage to the farmer was around ZAR 1.6 million (US$93,300), according to local media reports.

South Africa is notorious for high crime rates, and load-shedding makes it worse, with home security systems failing when the power goes out, giving criminals a great day in unsecured properties.
Policing is also becoming more difficult as officers are unable to reach the crime scene quickly enough due to traffic jams with traffic lights off.

Tumelo Mogodiseng, secretary-general of the South African Policing Union (SAPU), describes load shedding as “a pandemic”.

He says the lives of his members are now at greater risk because officers cannot spot potentially dangerous situations in the dark and police stations, many of which do not have backup power, are at risk of being attacked by criminals during power outages.

“Police die every day in this country. If this happens in daylight, what happens if they can’t see light at night?”

Mogodiseng also worries that crimes go unreported and citizens are afraid to leave their homes during power outages and travel in the dark. “Communities will not travel to police stations to open cases because they are afraid,” he told CNN.

Gareth Newham, who leads the Justice and Violence Prevention Program at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, says it’s difficult to get solid data on the impact of outages on crime. While anecdotal evidence suggests criminals are taking advantage of outages, the recent escalation in load shedding has coincided with the Christmas holidays, when crime rates typically soar.

His main concern is that continued load shedding or a temporary grid outage could lead to a repeat of the coordinated civil unrest, rioting and looting in parts of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces 18 months ago.

“A full grid blackout could be the catalyst for gangs to gain more power locally and we could see a similar type of violence as in July 2021.”

Under the African National Congress (ANC), in office since 1994, Eskom has become synonymous with corruption, crime and mismanagement.

Last year, a judge-led investigation into bribery under former President Jacob Zuma found there were grounds for prosecuting several former Eskom executives.

The government has failed to build new power plants to keep up with increased demand, and warnings from energy experts of looming supply shortages over the past two decades have been ignored.

A 2019 report by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering shows that qualified engineers have been leaving the country in droves.

Although billions of dollars have been spent on two massive coal-fired power plants, neither is working properly.

Older power plants are falling into disrepair due to lack of maintenance, and organized crime is stealing vital supplies of coal and cables from the railway lines that run from mines to power plants.

Renewable energy companies say they are desperate to feed into the grid, but the government has been slow to cut red tape and streamline regulatory processes that would shorten the timeframe for environmental permits, new project registrations and grid connection approvals.

Legal claims against the government and Eskom are piling up. Several political parties and unions say they will take the government and state utilities to court for failing to meet their electricity obligations.

With no end in sight to the blackouts, South Africans are desperately looking for alternative sources of energy, but even these are beyond the reach of many citizens.

Thando Makhubu says he’s shocked at the cost of running his ice cream business off-grid. “We were offered 100,000 rand ($5,945) and that excluded the solar panels.”

Karin McDonald, who runs a swimming school, also found the acquisition costs for solar systems prohibitive. “We’ve received bids for solar power for the business and the home and have considered no less than half a million rand ($29,500), which is a major life decision,” she said.

There is also a long wait for solar. “I know one solar contractor who had 40 inquiries last week, all for large solar projects,” said Angus Williamson, a KwaZulu-Natal rancher.

As they come to terms with their new reality, many South Africans find it difficult to remain optimistic.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is a train headed our way,” Williamson said.