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‘I’m expecting death any time’: How South Africa’s scheduled power cuts put lives on the line

Jeanette Mahlangu is wearing a tube that runs from her nose to an oxygen concentrator at home, which is located on her side.

As the 85-year old stares at the clock on the wall in her South Africa home in Soweto’s Meadowlands, her chest steadily rises.

Just after 6pm, the electricity goes out. Her oxygen support abruptly stops.

She can breathe unassisted for four hours until she feels the power return.

Image Ms Mahlangu photographed during a blackout

This is her second blackout of day, and each minute she passes could be her final.

Jeanette says calmly, “I expect death any day – even though it isn’t this day.”

As she removes the tube from her nose, her sister and daughter stare at her in deep concern.

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They aren’t. She is content to die.

“My mother is still and waiting for this. I’m scared and can’t speak for anyone else. Dani Mahlangu, her daughter, says that she doesn’t like it.

Image Dani Mahlangu is concerned about her mother

Their mobile phones are at the table.

The one with the most battery is the only one that has no signal.

The network is affected by the power outages and calls become almost impossible during these periods.

Jeanette would be unable to call an ambulance if she fell.

Paramedics will need to navigate the gridlocked roads and non-functioning traffic lights in order to transport her to an emergency room.

Joe Phaahla (Minister of Health) recently told parliament that 43 of the nation’s 400 public hospitals were exempted from “load-shedding”. This is a term for the scheduled, rotating power cuts used to alleviate the pressure on the country’s electricity supply.

Image Paramedics trapped in gridlocked traffic

“We were called by Emer-G-Med paramedic Nicole Morrison to check on a generator that had stopped working.”

“There were 18 paramedics, and nine ICU ventilated patient.”

“So, there were two paramedics per patient and we had to manually ventilate them for four hours.”

The increasing gap between the electricity supply and the growing needs of the population has been exacerbated by the frequent breakdowns of South Africa’s coal-fired power plants.

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After six generator units went down within 24 hours, Eskom now implements up to nine and a half hours of load-shedding per day.

Critics point out that the ruling Africa National Congress (ANC party) ignored warnings as far back 1998, when the Department of Minerals and Energy stated that Eskom’s surplus generation capacity would be fully utilised by 2007.

In 2007, South Africa ran out of energy and load-shedding was implemented.

Image Inside Soweto

The country is now in an electrical crisis.

Cyril Ramaphosa, President of the ANC Party, addressed his ANC party during a four-day strategy meeting Monday. He mentioned a possible national state declaration.

This would allow officials to have broad powers and access the budgets of their departments to do what they want.

He said, “There was talk of a national state disaster, similar to what we faced when we faced COVID-19. There is wide agreement that we should move in that direction.”

“We need to resolve the immediate task load-shedding in a shorter timeframe that what was projected.”

He warned, however, that South Africans must face the fact that load-shedding is going to be there for many years.

If the results are not immediate, it could lead to distrust in a context of growing discontent.

Protests are more frequent, and load-shedding has become a symbol for state corruption and structural collapse.

Image Ms Mahlangu holding the tube that allows her to breathe

Jeanette was there to witness Soweto’s first ever connection to the electricity grid in post-apartheid South Africa. But, her hope is dim.

She waits in her living-room with her sister and daughter, not for a resolution that might never come but for the inevitable ending.


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