Eskom puts SA in the Dark Ages
The buzz word in SA today is “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
You will rarely hear any government official making a speech without throwing in something about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how SA is at the centre of it.
In another time and space, we might have believed this – what with all the investment in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and other big data technologies.
But not today.
Today we are incapable of being moved by this rhetoric, because for the past few days, we have been on the receiving end of a load-shedding crisis that is devastating individuals and businesses alike.
How then do we make sense of the Fourth Industrial Revolution when basic things, such as electricity, are in a state of crisis?
The tragedy and perhaps the joke in all this is that electricity was at the centre of the Second Industrial Revolution that took place between 1870 and 1912.
That is right. The most significant technological system that came about back in the Second Industrial Revolution was electrical power.
This saw massive factory electrification and a production line anchored on electrified sequential operations that produced end-products for consumption much faster than had been the case previously.
Because electric power provides energy that can be converted into other forms of energy such as light, heat or motion, it can be carried long distances.
This is why electrification made allowance for advancements in manufacturing and production technology that led to the massification of technological systems, such as complex sewage systems and telephones.
It is for this reason that talks about the Fourth Industrial Revolution in SA are devastatingly tragic.
As we speak, millions of people have been affected by rotational load-shedding, with some areas experiencing several hours of blackouts at a rate of at least twice a day.
The power utility, Eskom, implemented stage four loadshedding at the weekend.
On Saturday evening, it implemented stage two, and just as we were breathing a sigh of relief, on Sunday it went right back to stage four.
This is deeply problematic for a number of reasons.
Firstly, logic dictates that the demand for electricity is higher in the winter months because this is when the grid is under immense pressure from households and businesses using a lot of electricity to keep warm.
In summer months, however, demand for electricity is much lower.
And yet this load-shedding is hitting us during the summer season, which in the southern hemisphere began on December 22 2018 and will end on March 20 2019.
If we are battling with electricity right now, what of the coming winter season?
Secondly, logic also dictates that the demand for electricity is lower on weekends because these are not working days.
It is during the week that there is a greater demand for electricity because people are in offices utilising appliances, and businesses are catering for the demands of such people.
So to have load-shedding on a weekend is a sure indicator that we are facing a bigger crisis than we want to admit.
Eskom has given the nation a bogus story about how Cyclone Idai that hit Mozambique and Zimbabwe, is the cause of the load-shedding crisis that we are experiencing.
The reality, however, is that we are only importing about 1,000MW of electricity from Mozambique and need about 30,000MW on any given day.
Breakdowns that are a result of ageing and faulty infrastructure account for almost half of the loss of the electricity.
So the truth is that Cyclone Idai is not the cause of our load-shedding crisis.
The cause is the huge cost overruns that we suffered in the construction of two multibillion-rand power stations – Kusile and Medupe, technical problems, poorly planned maintenance, breakdown of infrastructure and just as importantly, problems of leadership at Eskom.
What then of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Can we have the kind of technological leap that this revolution of complex cyber-physical systems demands if we are battling with elementary problems of powering the nation – problems that were resolved back in the 19th and early 20th centuries?
The answer to this is pretty obvious.
There is no reasonable way that SA can meaningfully participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the absence of strong and working institutions such as Eskom, which should be at the heart of industrialisation and the strengthening of manufacturing technologies.
Forget about the more nuanced issues around how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a threat to the segmented and gendered labour market.
Forget about the inadequate penetration of the internet in our poor communities.
For now, let us focus on just electricity supply – a basic ingredient to the success of this revolution.
If we cannot get this one right, then we must necessarily ask: WHERE THE HELL IS THIS FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION?