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South Africa’s businesses marooned by rolling blackouts
A freight train leaves the Eskom Power plant in Hendrina on February 22, 2018, after having discharged its load of coal. - The name of Eskom, Africa's largest electricity company, has become synonymous with the worst corruption scandals in South Africa and the utility could well become the final nail in the political coffin of President Jacob Zuma (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

South Africa’s businesses marooned by rolling blackouts

JOHANNESBURG: As if choreographed by a puppet master, stores along the aisle of a Johannesburg mall hurriedly shut their doors one by one as soon as power outages strike slap-bang in the middle of the day.

“We have to close the store immediately because people can steal … the card machines also don’t work without electricity,” a 23-year-old clothing retail worker told AFP.

Since 2008, state utility Eskom has sporadically implemented rolling blackouts — rationing up to 4,000 megawatts at a time — to help prevent a collapse of the electricity grid, a process known as “load shedding.”

But this week, the crisis suddenly worsened as Eskom rationed 6,000 megawatts from the national power grid, prompting the worst cuts in the country so far.

The power outages have caused many businesses to lose out on hours of sales during the peak festive season, threatening an already fragile economy.

“Most of them have to close shop as they can’t afford alternative solutions such as generators and renewable energy such as solar systems,” the CEO of the Black Business Council, Kganki Matabane, told AFP.

Across town about 60 km south of Johannesburg in the crucial industrial manufacturing hub known as the Vaal Triangle, industrialists reel from the unstable supply of power.

“The big industries that start up furnaces lose an obscene amount of money when there are blackouts,” said Jaco Verwey, vice chairman of the Golden Triangle Chamber of Commerce.

“Firstly they lose money on downtime. Secondly, they lose money on restarting again because they need more electricity to restart their furnaces.”

The organization boasts around 450 member businesses, 33 of which pay a combined electricity bill of 100 million rands ($6.8 million) a month.

Businesses, big and small, are plunged daily into darkness for nearly five hours at a time, sometimes even multiple times a day.

Large underground mines, among the largest contributors to GDP, suspended some shifts this week to avoid trapping miners in the belly of the earth when the electricity cuts out.

AngloAmerican spokesman Sibusiso Tshabalala told AFP that its “South African operations have been impacted by Eskom load shedding.”

“While we have response plans … this is not a sustainable solution as it is costly to run generators,” he said, adding that sustained power outages resulted in reduced revenues and production.

Hundreds of tourists, hoping to catch the aerial cableway at the top of Table Mountain, were left stranded for nearly three hours this week after load shedding escalated to stage 6.

Even telecommunications networks were forced to beef up on backup power to maintain customers’ connectivity during load shedding.

African giant MTN reportedly spends up to 100 million rand on battery generators for every three days of electricity blackouts.

But for some, like retailer Shoprite, the outages have resulted a spike in sales of alternative energy and lighting products such as candles, paraffin, gas bottles, emergency lights and kettle braais.