Tri-fold Impact of load-shedding in South African Cities: Power Outage, Destruction, and Regression

South Africa is facing a major energy crisis, characterized by widespread load shedding, which has significantly impacted the urban economy and cities. This energy crisis has arisen due to several factors: aging infrastructure, limited energy generation capacity, and a lack of investment in new power plants and alternative energy sources. The impact of the energy crisis on the urban economy has been far-reaching and had major consequences for businesses, households, and individuals, thereby affecting everyone. The irony is not lost on many of us that Eskom, South Africa’s power company, has constitutional and statutory obligations to guarantee a reliable energy supply.

It is imperative to acknowledge that urban economies are complex and interconnected. Load shedding has causative ripple effects on various sectors of the economy, including but not limited to: (i) The Manufacturing Industry: Load shedding can lead to decreased productivity and increased costs for manufacturers, particularly for those in industries that require a constant power supply, such as the pharmaceutical, chemical, and food processing industries. (ii) Healthcare: Load shedding can pose a significant challenge for hospitals and clinics that rely on electricity to operate critical medical equipment such as ventilators and dialysis machines. (iii) Information Technology: Load shedding can disrupt businesses and data centers that rely on electronic equipment and computers, resulting in decreased efficiency and potential data loss. (iv) Transport: Load shedding significantly impacts the economy, as the transport sector is a crucial contributor to economic growth and employment. Additionally, the energy crisis has made it challenging for individuals to access essential services such as healthcare, education, and social services, affecting the overall quality of life in urban areas. (v) Agriculture: Load shedding can cause the loss of crops and reduced productivity in the agriculture sector, particularly for those who rely on electricity-powered irrigation pumps.

Given that cities are home to almost 67% of the South African population and responsible for approximately 80% of economic activity and employment in the country, it is no rocket science to understand that load-shedding has battered the South African urban economy the most; as witnessed through widespread disruption of businesses, reduced productivity, low outputs, and revenues, loss of employment among others. In most cases, businesses incur extra costs to keep their operations running during load shedding. Such costs include but are not limited to investing in backup generators and paying extra for their workers to work overtime. This has put pressure on their profitability and made it difficult for businesses to stay afloat. The energy crisis has also impacted the job market, leading to a decrease in employment and a rise in unemployment. The official unemployment rate was 33,9% in the second quarter of 2022, according to StatsSA 2022. Bearing the brunt of all this are low-skilled workers, who are often the first to be laid off when businesses are facing financial difficulties.

In addition, load shedding has disrupted essential services such as cooking and lighting, increasing household energy costs. This has significantly impacted households’ finances, particularly those on low incomes who cannot afford the extra energy costs or switch to alternative energy sources. This has resulted in a decrease in consumer spending and has put

pressure on the local economy. Also, this issue has contributed to major consequences for the environment. Load-shedding has increased the use of diesel-powered backup generators, which have released large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This has had a major impact on air quality, particularly in urban areas already facing significant air pollution problems. The increased use of diesel-powered generators has also increased energy costs, which has put further pressure on the economy.

The issue of load-shedding disproportionately affects the urban poor in South Africa, as they are most vulnerable to the impact of power cuts. This is because low-income households and communities often lack the financial means to afford alternative energy sources or the additional energy costs during load-shedding. As a result, they cannot access basic services such as healthcare, education, and social services, further excluding certain groups from the benefits of urban life. The energy crisis contributes significantly to exclusivity in South Africa’s cities as it widens existing inequalities and creates significant barriers for marginalized communities to access the benefits of urbanization.

In conclusion, the energy crisis in South Africa is a critical issue that has severe implications for the urban economy. It contributes to city exclusivity, limiting access to essential services, opportunities, and resources, thereby perpetuating social and economic disparities. Its effects can be felt in various ways, from widening the gap between the rich and the poor to reducing productivity, revenue, and consumer spending. Moreover, the crisis has also affected the transport sector, the environment, and the overall well-being of urban dwellers. Addressing this issue will require a concerted effort from policymakers, industry players, and society to ensure a sustainable and equitable energy supply for all. This will require investment in renewable energy sources, modernizing infrastructure, and promoting energy-efficient practices to reduce energy demand. By doing so, we can mitigate the negative impacts of the energy crisis and promote social inclusion and sustainable development in our cities.

Dr. Fortune Mangara holds a position as a postdoctoral research fellow within the SARChI Chair for Inclusive Cities in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu Natal.

Mr. Edmore Mutsaa is a Ph.D. candidate in Town and Regional Planning within the SARChI for Inclusive Cities in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu Natal

Fortune Mangara and Edmore Mutsaa
University of KwaZulu Natal