- - Thursday, January 15, 2015

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As schools reopen here in the coming days after the Christmas break, South Africans are braced for a surge in the power cuts that have plagued the country since early December, and the rolling blackouts could spell trouble for the ruling African National Congress at the ballot box.

During the week, schools, factories and offices will move to full capacity, drawing on an already-fragile national grid. And in the heat of the Southern Hemisphere summer, air conditioners will be turned on full blast.

A state-owned company, ESKOM, has the monopoly to produce more than 95 percent of the nation’s electricity but, since 2008, a lack of maintenance and delays in opening new plants have led to a growing gap in supply. Last week large swaths of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and the capital Pretoria were left in the dark as ESKOM cut transmission for hours at a time to prevent a collapse of its network.

Residents in poorer areas, a constituency likely to be fiercely contested in upcoming elections, claim they have been unfairly targeted.

“Our lights go off for many hours, sometimes all night,” said Charlotte Ngwenya at Olivenhout, a sprawling settlement with hundreds of wood-and-iron shacks halfway down the 40-mile highway between Pretoria and the commercial base of Johannesburg. “People are poor here, and no one cares if we are in the dark,” she said.

Mrs. Ngwenya works as a cleaner in the plush suburb of Waterkloof north of Pretoria, where diplomats and government ministers enjoy large homes with lawns and swimming pools.

“In Waterkloof, the lights can go off for a short time, but it’s not often,” she said.

ESKOM insists the cuts are done fairly and without targeting any population group.

Polls suggest the ruling African National Congress is less popular than at any time since former President Nelson Mandela led the party to power in 1994. With municipal elections due in 2016, analysts say the ANC could lose Johannesburg and Pretoria to the opposition Democratic Alliance, which, in 2011, won the city of Cape Town and increased its number of councilors in towns across the country.

The business community is also weighing in on ESKOM’s woes. Vusi Khumalo, president of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Wednesday that companies are “gravely concerned about the [perilous] situation in which ESKOM finds itself.” Many heavy industrial customers of ESKOM say they have been struggling to cut their own energy demands in recent years, and even brief power outages can translate into major delays for mine and factory operators.

“The potential impacts that [the blackouts] will have on business, business confidence and consumers alike is inestimable,” Mr. Khumalo warned in a statement.

Seeking subsidies

ESKOM has asked the government for a $4.3 billion subsidy to help deal with the demand, but Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene — who presents his budget to Parliament next month — said a government handout is not the answer.

“We are extremely concerned with what is happening at ESKOM,” he told reporters, adding that he expected the state-owned entity to be run on business lines, “generating a profit through sales.”

But with several of its coal-fired plants undergoing maintenance, ESKOM can only meet the demand via a diesel backup system that generates power at four times the sale price — a price that is capped by legislation.

On Jan. 9, Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown warned that, if the cost-price mismatch continues, “ESKOM will run out of money by the end of January.”

The government hopes to change the law so that private investors can generate power and sell it via the national grid, though the move is opposed by unions, who would rather see essentials such as water and electricity in public hands.

And while South Africa enjoys an average level of sunshine comparable with Texas, solar cells are expensive, and panels are subject to import duties and sales taxes. However, in poor areas, the government provides families with free solar geysers for hot water.

ESKOM is not the only state enterprise in arrears. Industrial unrest shut down the post office for much of 2014, leaving it short of income, while South African Airways has run up debts of around $1.5 billion.

SAA flies the world’s longest nonstop route, between Johannesburg and Washington’s Dulles airport, but the state-owned carrier’s level of debt has left it unable to purchase a new and more fuel-efficient fleet of planes.

President Jacob Zuma is expected to include ESKOM and SAA in his state-of-the-nation address in February, but a small opposition party that favors even greater state control of the economy has threatened to disrupt the speech.

The radical Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema, won 6 percent of the vote in last year’s general election, running on a platform of nationalizing banks, mines and land.

Mr. Malema has been vocal in demanding that President Zuma return some of the $2.3 million in state money used to upgrade his private home. A recent debate in Parliament was abandoned when EFF members chanted at the president, “Pay back the money.” The protesters say they plan a repeat next month unless Mr. Zuma explains how and when he intends to reimburse the treasury.

The EFF claims much of the failure at entities like ESKOM is due to government corruption and mismanagement.

South Africa already has one nuclear power station, with plans for eight more at a cost of $50 billion, though a proposal for bids has yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, ESKOM has turned to local radio, Twitter and Facebook in a bid to encourage South Africans to limit consumption and ease the strain on the power grid — including a suggestion that customers turn off their swimming pool filters at night.

But in Olivenhout, Mrs. Ngwenya said that only shows how out of touch the government has become.

“Most people who live near me are unemployed,” she said. “Our kids don’t have enough to eat, and ESKOM talks about swimming pools. They only worry about the rich and, when power is short, they just cut us off.”

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