The country's power provider can't keep up with demand. Some locals blame the government for not fixing this faster. But power mafias, corruption and theft of power makes this problem particularly complex.
Lindie Dlamini is bracing for a winter of discontent. The mother of two from Johannesburg, South Africa, has just learned that the country's power crisis is widely expected to further deteriorate.
"This government is suppressing us. We are already struggling with this electricity, and this is only stage six," she told DW, referring to the various stages of "load shedding" currently applied across South Africa.
Load shedding is the now-routine practise of scheduling power cuts to keep the country's power grid from collapsing. South Africans have become used to load shedding for over 15 years. However in the 2020s, the government has had to resort to progressively higher stages, leaving households without electricity for up to half a day at a time.
Locals like Dlamini are worried that in the coming colder months the power cuts could get worse, with the government now proposing a load shedding schedule with up to 16 stages -- meaning the lights would only stay on a few hours a day.
A country at standstill
The persistent blackouts across the country affect not only homes. The power crisis is a main contributor to South Africa teetering on the brink of recession, as not only heavy industries but also agriculture, forestry, mining and fishing have had to limit their work.
According to the latest South African Reserve Bank estimates, load shedding has a negative impact of 2.1% on gross domestic product, or GDP, in the third quarter of 2022. Since then, power cuts have only become longer and more frequent.
The effect of load shedding is perhaps most felt in the public sector: Traffic lights are off, hospitals run generators, government departments are unable to issue documents whenever "the system is offline" and teachers instruct their students in freezing classrooms.
Thelma Ramalepe works at a school in Johannesburg. She says that the power crisis has brought the academic progress of her students to a halt. "We run most of the time without electricity. The school just stands still. We always have to buy petrol for the small generator we have," she told DW.
These kinds of frustrations have been mounting in recent months, signaling a potential wave of social unrest in the coming months, as winter temperatures set in.
In WhatsApp groups and social media channels, citizens are now having conversations on how to protect themselves against looters in case there are violent protests similar to those witnessed in KwaZulu-Natal Province two years ago, which resulted in over 350 deaths.
Meanwhile Eskom, South Africa's beleaguered power provider, continues to struggle to keep the country's electricity infrastructure running.
The reasons for Eskom's failure read like a Hollywood thriller: South Africa's population -- and subsequently its energy needs -- have grown by roughly 50% since the end of apartheid in 1994, but Eskom did little to keep the network up to date, nor to find ways to help lower-income households with their electricity bills since the advent of democracy.
Keeping the lights on for 'mahala'
People living in poverty in informal settlements, in particular on the outskirts of major urban areas, started tapping into power grid illegally.
This was officially acknowledged back in 2012, when then-Energy Minister Dipuo Peters commented on this trend by saying: "I know people like things for mahala (free)."
Today, in some areas, according to Eskom, this means that up to 50% of the electricity used goes to illegal connections. Over the years, this has led to an avalanche of blown transformers across the country, which Eskom struggles to repair.
Then organized crime and government corruption entered the story.
Crime syndicates ransom power company
For years, small-time criminals have been stealing parts from the nationwide utilities infrastructure to sell as scrap metal, leading to a shortage of materials like copper in the country. The government even proposed a scrap metal ban last year to combat this.
However, this was nothing compared to revelations from earlier this year, when it was revealed that crime syndicates have been holding the country's network of coal-powered plants to ransom.
The Daily Maverick, a nationwide media outlet, obtained intelligence reports highlighting how, in almost every province, criminal gangs now act as a middlemen, running a scheme that is best compared to drug cartel activities. They reportedly steal coal from official suppliers, mix in rocks to dilute the deliveries, and then try to sell this off to the power plants, dictating the going rate for the coal.
If power plant executives don't comply, the syndicates resort to destroying parts of the plants. In many cases, it is easier for those in charge to play along than put up a fight, trying to keep South Africa's lights on as best they can; in some instances, however, these executives are even reported to profit from these deals themselves, according to The Daily Maverick.
In fact, Eskom executives are alleged to have stolen funds to the tune of $55 million a month for much of the past decade.
That's according to a report presented to parliament by Andre de Ruyter, former CEO of Eskom, who had been put in charge of sorting out the company's affairs.
De Ruyter tried for three years to get Eskom's books in order -- until he finally went public last year as a whistleblower with the initial findings of his investigation. Some have since criticized the investigation for not following due process and therefore being baseless, as it was conducted behind the backs of Eskom's board.
In late 2022, de Ruyter narrowly escaped a serious attempt on his life after going public with the findings.
Rumors about total blackouts
The story about de Ruyter cheating death-by-poisoning makes for yet another astonishing chapter in the Eskom saga. But others are less fortunate than the former CEO.
South Africa's Sunday Times reported on May 21 that a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed by police in a township outside Emalahleni, 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of the capital Pretoria, after partaking in a rally against power cuts.
Teacher Ramalepe now has to worry even more about her students and their safety -- at school, on the streets, and even at home.
"We are told to brace ourselves for a very cold winter. Most people are not employed. They can't afford gas [to heat their homes]," she said, referring to South Africa's official unemployment rate of over 33%.
Ramalepe told DW that the thought of power cuts lasting for most of the day terrifies her -- but not as much as rumors of a complete shutdown of electricity. "And then people are saying we're going to have a shutdown, we're going to stay without electricity for almost a week in June, in July. It's becoming worse," she said.
Ramaphosa's 'power' struggle
Increasingly, people are blaming President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government for not doing enough to keep South Africa's lights on.
The president tried to address the crisis with a cabinet reshuffle, establishing two new ministries: a Ministry for Electricity and a Ministry with Specific Responsibility for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation.
But Dlamini says that instead of creating new ministries -- the country already has one of the biggest cabinets in the world -- she wants to see the government officials in charge held accountable for failing to fix the crisis: "This government agency must just go. I blame it," she said."
Someone, who is in control like [Ramaphosa] is supposed to do something about it."
However, with mob-like cartels and covert assassination attempts thickening the plot, there is only so much even the President can do, says Sean Muller, senior research fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Studies.
"President Ramaphosa had four to five years to address this problem. My view is that he was poorly advised at the outset. I think he's probably still is being poorly advised by people who have vested interests," he said.
According to Muller, it might take years for real solutions to come about: "There are moves underway to get new capacity onto the grid, including renewable energy, maybe even in three years' time. The question is, what's going to happen in the interim?"
A tax for helping to the rescue
For many, renewable energy solutions are the only way out of the crisis, as thousands of households and businesses across the country have opted to go completely "off grid" in recent years.
In fact, the solar industry has become one of the few sectors currently booming in South Africa, with installation appointments booked up months in advance. According to the Daily Investor, imports of solar panels reached $200 million in South Africa in the first quarter of 2023.
This initiative could theoretically set South Africa on the path towards becoming the first off-grid nation in the world, at least in powering homes and offices. A report published by RMB Morgan Stanley shows that overall, the private sector will start to generate more electricity than Eskom by 2025, led by renewable solutions.
This will free up considerable parts of Eskom's crumbling grid to help industry and manufacturing sectors; however, many households wil remain in the dark: With solar panels costing upwards of $10,000, the end of load shedding is not close for those who would have to give up one year's salary or more to install solar.
But there's another issue holding back the solar revolution: The government is now contemplating the introduction of a tax for solar "off-gridders" -- as its days of generating income through Eskom are numbered.
Caryn Dick, a Pretoria resident, who powers her four bedroom home completely on solar energy, told DW that this is unacceptable, as going off the grid is not just for her own benefit: "I'm not consuming electricity from Eskom and therefore leaving my share for others; I'm also giving all my surplus electricity back to the grid," she stressed.
"I shouldn't have to pay for this at all. The government should pay us for our solar since Eskom can't give us electricity."