When I first arrived in Cape Town, it seemed as if all anybody could talk about was load shedding. My housemates talked about it while making weekend plans, faculty talked about it in the halls when discussing exams, you can download the “UCT load shedding app”, and signs like this (–>) are posted up all over campus detailing how one can prepare for and survive load shedding. I wandered around in a daze for the first week thinking to myself, “What the HELL is load shedding?!”
Well, according to the Internet, load shedding is: “the action to reduce the load on something, especially the interruption of an electricity supply to avoid excessive load on the generating plant.” The City of Cape Town explains it this way: “Load shedding is a measure of last resort to prevent the collapse of the power system country-wide. When there is insufficient power station capacity to supply the demand (load) from all the customers, the electricity system becomes unbalanced, which can cause it to trip out country-wide (a blackout), and which could take days to restore.”
Essentially, load shedding is scheduled blackouts, set up on a rotating sector system (I live in sector 15). To relieve stress on the electricity generators, the City of Cape Town has designed a load shedding system, especially needed in the winter months, to protect the generators from becoming overloaded. They explain: “By switching off parts of the network in a planned and controlled manner, the system remains stable throughout the day, and the impact is spread over a wider base of customers. Load shedding schedules are drawn up in advance to describe the plan for switching off parts of the network in sequence during the days that load shedding is necessary.”
What does this mean? It means the power goes out. A lot. In my first two weeks, the power went out in my house and stayed out for several hours at least five times (could be more, but I was gone). Everyone seemed prepared for this but me. On one of my first nights (before I knew what load shedding was), I was walking back from dinner and I thought to myself, “Man, it’s so dark! This is a busy street, why are all the street lights off?” When I saw that even the stoplight was out I realized it must be a power outage. Up ahead, a trio of people crossed the street wearing headlamp flashlights. Clearly, they knew the power was scheduled to be out! I had to figure out what was going on. That’s when I finally got serious and looked up load shedding. In this cool time lapse video you can see what the city center looks like during and after load shedding:
Power also goes out on campus. This week, I was in the office working when the power went out. No power means no Internet, which means no productivity for me. To make things worse, before the power went out I had been working really hard and I kept putting off using the bathroom. So I had to feel my way into the pitch-black bathroom, using the dinky light on the end of my keychain to see what I was doing. And of course, when there is no light, you immediately assume the worst and think that someone is lurking outside the stall waiting to stab you. Not. Fun.
I’m learning that the load shedding system is quite controversial among South Africans. For example, it was in the news recently that the process of determining whom exactly goes without power, and for how long, is a subject of constant debate between the primary power company, Eskom, and the government (see the cartoon below). In May, the City was pleading with Eskom to have areas including Manenberg, Ottery, and Hanover Park exempt from load shedding due to increases in gang violence. One mayoral committee member explained, “The metro police gang and drug task team has indicated that working under circumstances with severe gang violence is challenging enough as it is, but that the loss of street lights at night during serious gang violence makes it virtually impossible to work” (see the article here).
People blame the city, they blame the ANC (African National Congress), they blame Africa, they blame the world, but no matter who is to blame, load shedding is going to continue to be a permanent fixture of my experiences here in Cape Town. No matter what I am doing–working in the office, making dinner, commuting home–for the rest of my time here I better get used to people saying, “You better hurry, power’s about to go out.” Also, I should really buy some candles…