From Capetown to Catonsville

South Africa is facing daily power outages, which is halting its economic growth.

But after three weeks of chronic failures —after regularly irregular vexations with lifeless computers, stove tops and stoplights — public forbearance has given way to outrage. This nation, long a reliable repository of cheap, plentiful electricity, finds itself pitifully short of juice.

The government has confessed to an “electricity emergency” and has begun a program of rationing for industrial users. This is a mortifying turn for a country that considers itself the powerhouse of Africa and resists comparisons to its underdeveloped, famine-plagued neighbors.

But electricity shortages, now expected to be a fact of life for the next five years, are more than an embarrassment. They threaten continued strong growth here in a nation that accounts for a third of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic output and ranks among the world’s top 25 countries in gross domestic product.

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Because South Africa is an engine of growth for the region, a slowdown here would also affect its neighbors, undermining global efforts to reduce poverty and damaging South Africa’s own drive to slash its woeful unemployment rate of 25.5 percent.

One of this nation’s largest employers, the mining industry, virtually halted production for four days last week because Eskom, the dominant, government-controlled utility, could not guarantee enough power to ventilate and cool the deep underground shafts. Companies that mine gold and platinum restarted production only on Tuesday after emergency negotiations with Eskom, South Africa’s Chamber of Mines said.

“The shutdown of the mining industry is an extraordinary, unprecedented event,” said Anton Eberhard, a business school professor at the University of Cape Town and an energy expert. “That’s a powerful message, massively damaging to South Africa’s reputation for new investment. Our country was built on the mines.”

And how did this happen?

The current crisis stems from Eskom’s lack of capacity to generate enough power, and its inability to keep many of its plants working.

The predicament was foretold. In 1998, a government report warned that at the rate the economy was growing, the nation faced serious electricity shortages by 2007 unless capacity was expanded. The government, led by President Thabo Mbeki, who assumed office in June 1999, tried unsuccessfully to induce private investors to build additional power plants. Only belatedly did it permit Eskom to begin the necessary expansion.

“The president has accepted that this government got its timing wrong,” Alec Erwin, the public enterprises minister, said last Friday at a much-anticipated news briefing that broke a mystifying public silence…

South Africans are appalled by the daily interruptions to their lives. Workers sit idle, televisions flick into darkness and silence, elevators stall between floors, gas stations cannot pump, cakes remain forever half-baked. Every intersection with disabled traffic lights becomes a four-way stop, with drivers in each direction maddeningly delayed as the endless lines of cars inch forward.

Does this sound familiar?

Future power shortages and brownouts are predicted for Maryland due to lack of supply and increasing demand. Yet the mental giants in Annapolis are proposing legislation, which will DECREASE incentives to create generating capacity, and INCREASE energy costs and bring about energy rationing.

crossposted on The Main Adversary

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