NATIONAL BLACKOUT FOR SOUTH AFRICA?

eskom-loadshedding

An alarming SMS/Whatsapp message currently doing the rounds in South Africa claims that the cabinet has been briefed by Eskom (the national electrical producer)about the risk of a total national electricity blackout. It points to complete anarchy and a planned evacuation by the US embassy in Pretoria for when the lights go off in South Africa once and for all.

The original message (sent in Afrikaans) reads as follows:

Eskom en kabinet het vandag ‘n nood vergadering gehad. Daar kan moontlik n totale “blackout” wees in SA. Geen krag vir minstens 2 weke word voorspel. Die USA embassy het nood planne in plek om alle Amerikaners uit te vlieg na Amerika . Geweld, diefstal, plundering en moord  word voorspel. Geen geld sal getrek kan word, geen brandstof, geen kos, alle besighede sal gesluit wees. Koop asb meel, olie suurdeeg, medikasie, maak karre vol petrol. Wees paraat asb! Stuur aan ons volksgenote, dit kan gebeur!!!

Translated into English, the message reads as follows:

Eskom and the cabinet had an emergency meeting today. There can be a possible blackout in SA. No power for at least 2 weeks is predicted. The USA embassy has emergency plans to evacuate all Americans to America.  Violence, theft, looting, and murder are predicted.  No money will be available, no fuel, no food, all businesses will be closed.  Please buy flour, oil, yeast, medication, fill your cars.  Be prepared!  Send to your fellow countrymen, it can happen!!!

This email is a classic example of reporting the right facts with the wrong conclusions or interpretations, in an attempt to intentionally create panic.
Yes, the Cabinet has been briefed by Eskom about the risk of a total national electricity blackout, and yes, the US embassy in Pretoria has an evacuation plan for getting its staff out safely if the lights go off in South Africa. But these were discussed as absolute worst-case scenarios and in no way did the cabinet foresee shutdowns, looting, murder or violence.  These predictions were added without any substance – and probably with a political agenda (see below).

There are four considerations in our response to this message:
Firstly, it is important to note that the scenario was not sketched as a prediction by Eskom – as mentioned above, it was discussed as a worse-case scenario.  A telecommunications CEO told City Press that not drawing up plans for a worst-case scenario would be “daft” and that such a discussion is (and should be) standard practice.

Secondly, this discussion happened late last year (2014) and not “today” as mentioned in the recent messages that have been circulating. A dateless message is normally a sign of an intentional hoax and allows it to circulate at any time in the future.

Thirdly, the contingency plan adopted by Eskom is based on events that happened in California in 2011.  An Eskom official made the following statement: “When your car battery is flat, you need additional capacity to be able to boost it. This is how our system works. California had to buy an amount of power equal to their total capacity to be able to reboot their system.”

Eskom refused to comment on the chances of a large-scale blackout happening and merely said it would continue to implement load shedding in order to protect the grid, as this is the best way of protecting South Africa’s power system.

Fourthly, the reality of the US embassy’s evacuation plans was misinterpreted. US Embassy spokesperson Jack Hillmeyer confirmed that the embassy has a plan, but said it was standard procedure: “The safety and security of our American and local staff and facilities is a top priority. As we do in our locations throughout the world, we plan and prepare for possible emergency situations we may face. Our planning in South Africa is similar to what we do in all countries.”
Further research shows that even though a total blackout is always a possibility, and Eskom is only producing 71% of its generation capacity owing to faults at its power stations, the prospect of an extended blackout is highly unlikely at this stage. Kenny Andrew, an engineering consulting who previously worked at Eskom, commented on the situation: “A grid collapse in South Africa now is very unlikely… Load shedding prevents it… unfortunately we are going to have load shedding for three years at least.”
Mike Rycroft, an energy analyst and features editor of Energize magazine, shared his views: “Eskom has a very advanced network management centre in operation which I am confident will, barring any catastrophic failure not due to grid overload, enable them to avoid grid collapse by using controlled load shedding.”

 

Where did the message come from?

The original message was placed on the Boere Krisis Aksie (BKA) Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/boerekrisisaksie/posts/1083739238319287).  The BKA describes themselves as “a political pressure group for self-determination and white interests in South Africa”.  It could therefore be assumed that the purpose of the original SMS/Whatsapp was to make a political point. And even though the message had elements of truth in it, and the need to prepare for a blackout may be valid at some point in the future, the way in which the content was conveyed was unbalanced and sensational.

Conclusion: A grid collapse is always possible but is highly unlikely at this stage. And even if a national blackout should occur, there are sufficient private resources (like generators, etc.) that will ensure that much is ‘business as usual’, just with more discomfort. There are enough peace-loving citizens in South Africa, from all races, religions and cultures, to prevent a full-blown anarchy as described in the message.  And while caution is good, panic paralyses. From a practical point of view, if anyone wants to stock up on supplies, rather focus on candles and batteries than flour and yeast.

FROM AN AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE

According to the WEO-2011 Electricity Access Database nearly six hundred million people in Africa are without electricity.  This translates to an electrification rate of only 41.8%  In Sub-Saharan Africa the situation is worse with only 30% of the population having electricity.  More than 580 million people live without this luxury.  In this context load shedding seems to be little to complain about when nearly 70% of Sub Saharan people have no electricity.  Gratitude for having electricity should outweigh the complaints for not having it for 24 hours every day.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

As Christians, we are called to be ‘hope-givers’ and not ‘hope-drainers’.  Even when Jesus cautioned His disciples to be prepared for the worst (Mark 13), He still spoke with hope and purpose, calling them to focus on the task of preaching the Gospel rather than getting caught up in what was happening around them.

People will always believe what they want to believe, but we still have a responsibility. We should not ‘feed the frenzy’, but should rather be ‘makers of peace’ (Matthew 5:9). In all our exchanges and interactions within our communities and with the people around us, we will either be ‘giving life’ or ‘draining life’ – within this particular situation, we have this choice in terms of how we talk about the challenges in our country: we can either bogged down with the negativities and fear and carried away with sensationalism, or we bring a counter-voice of hope, calm and reason.

“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  John 14:27 

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.”  Romans 8: 5-6 

Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.  James 3:18
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