Power outage

As South Africa celebrates 14 years of post-apartheid rule, AIDS and electricity could spark revolution
By PETER-DIRK UYS  |  April 23, 2008


EDITOR’S NOTE As the Republic of South Africa celebrates 14 years of democracy this Sunday, April 27, that nation is also confronting some severe growing pains. High on the list of problems is a surging demand for energy that has overwhelmed the country’s electricity supplier, Eskom, to the point where “load-shedding” (i.e., selectively turning off customers’ power) is routine. Lucrative mining operations have been periodically forced to shut down, and the country’s currency, the rand, has been in freefall.

The electricity shortage has also jeopardized South Africa’s deal with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to host the 2010 World Cup soccer championships, for which the construction of some new stadiums is already underway.

Thabo Mbeki, the South African president internationally notorious for dismissing the nation’s AIDS crisis, has been weakened by the failure of the very boom economy he fostered and will likely be succeeded by African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma (a/k/a “JZ”), himself linked to several corruption investigations. Zuma had served as deputy president until he became embroiled in a scandal involving top-ranking government officials accused of accepting (US) $8 billion in bribes from foreign companies bidding for pieces of a lucrative South African rearmament program.

South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, currently appearing in Cambridge in his one-person show Elections and Erections: A Chronicle of Fear and Fun at the ART’s Zero Arrow Street Theatre, has been a thorn in that nation’s political side since apartheid provided him with fish-in-a-barrel targets. In this exclusive essay for the Phoenix, he laments that, thanks to circumstances back in Pretoria, his career as a national critic is, for now, all too secure, even in the post-apartheid era. Still, he has hope for the future.

Damn it, I want to be optimistic. I have always seen my glass as half full and not half empty. Now I think it’s dry. I’ll check once the lights come on again.

South Africa’s government of the day has always written my best material, so perhaps this national electricity crisis is just another wonderful ploy to grab more kickbacks. (We know the recent arms deal enriched those crème de la comrades beyond their wildest dreams. That $8 billion is peanuts compared with the $100 billion needed to erect the cluster of nuclear power plants that will bring South Africa’s electricity grid back online.) No one will complain — everyone is united in their fury. “Build the power stations, Zuma!” they will demand. Before load-shedding (the politically correct alternative to the word “blackouts”), the nation would have just said: “No way, Comrade!”

As of April 27, democracy in the Republic of South Africa is 14 years old. In 1994, after centuries of darkness, the miracle happened and the lights went on once again, after apartheid made way for the formerly banned alternative. And we are still there. Except, this time thanks to incompetence, the lights are going out once more.

President Thabo Mbeki has admitted that his government got its timing wrong in terms of managing our electricity needs. (By “government,” I think he means his cabinet.) He says sorry. As if his administration merely had added too much salt to the national stew. Actually, the stew was never there. His comrades took the gravy. Now there’s no salt, either.

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