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Global update

South Africa can’t keep the lights on

Protesters in Pretoria earlier this year. Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty

South Africa is one of the richest countries on the continent, says Tortoise’s Slow Newscast, but it’s currently “struggling to keep the lights on”. Last year, there were 200 days of “load shedding”: a euphemism for planned 10-hour blackouts, cutting power to everything from fridges and traffic lights to hospital equipment. At the heart of the issue is the state-owned energy giant Eskom, which is being “eaten away by corruption”. After years of funnelling billions to uber-rich officials, the firm has no cash to fix the equipment at its 14 dilapidated power stations – so it has to ration what little electricity it manages to produce.

Then there are the cartels attacking Eskom’s operations. These criminal organisations bribe drivers to drop off high-quality coal at so-called “black sites”, where they then sell it on to countries like China and India for huge profits. What ends up at Eskom’s power plants in its place is a mix of low-grade fuel, sand and black stones that damages the equipment. There’s also outright “sabotage”: workers who will literally drop a spanner in the works, so that they get a share of the lucrative repair contract. The corruption is like “a cancer that has gone untreated”, says one former employee, “and it’s now grown throughout the entire body of the organisation”. Much of the country’s elite benefits from these dodgy operations. Until that changes, South Africa’s best interests will continue to be “pushed into second place by private greed”.