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Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 17:34 EDT

Blackouts plague Africa’s richest city

November 3, 2005

By Alistair Thomson

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Friends laugh raucously and young
couples whisper across candle-lit tables, but despite the
animation, restaurant manager Frank Ndlovu is not a happy man.

“It’s like an unexpected guest — the worst unexpected
guest,” he says of the latest power cut to black out Spiro’s, a
restaurant in Johannesburg’s lively Melville suburb.

It is Saturday night, summer is here and normally the main
street would be abuzz with diners and students on pub crawls.

However, after two hours in the dark, restaurants and bars
gradually empty as patrons head for other parts of town where
electric lights still work and, vitally, the music still plays.

Power cuts in Africa’s richest city are not just an
inconvenience to revelers. They are also feeding fears that
Johannesburg’s flaws and blemishes will prove an embarrassment
in five years’ time when thousands of soccer fans descend on
South Africa for the 2010 World Cup.

City Power, Johannesburg’s public electricity distribution
utility, blames the outages on the theft of cables for scrap
and the fact that most of its network is more than 30 years
old.

South Africa’s power problems are compounded by a supply
crunch, as demand fast overtakes capacity in a country long an
over-producer with some of the world’s cheapest sources of
power. Analysts warn that tightening supply could hit growth.

In Melville, the darkness is already hitting business.

A lone couple sits in the Local Grill steakhouse braving
the haze of cooking smoke which has been billowing out of the
kitchen since the extractor fans fell silent. All the other
diners have retreated on to the pavement outside or left.

Most restaurateurs stay open as long as they can hoping for
the lights to come on. But with an apparent increase in serious
power cuts in the past year or so, frustration is growing.

“This year it’s been more than five times. It’s a loss for
the business,” Ndlovu said. “The worst thing is they don’t
compensate us.”

“WORLD-CLASS GRID”

City Power says it is working to make services more
reliable, using 675 million rand ($102.6 million) in public
money to transform the aging network into “a world-class grid.”

“No electricity distributor guarantees electricity supply,
however, City Power strives to provide a good quality of
supply,” the company said in response to a Reuters inquiry.

The 2010 World Cup tournament is giving added impetus to
South Africa’s efforts to upgrade its public services and
infrastructure, which in many areas are still poor or
non-existent more than a decade after the end of apartheid.

Operators such as City Power are racing to provide proper
electricity and other services to former non-white areas which
suffered years of neglect under apartheid authorities.

Some industry workers say the need to put up power lines
and sub-stations in poor areas has increased demands on already
stretched resources, but City Power insists the electrification
program has not increased the strain on its infrastructure.

An August report by the National Electricity Regulator
(NER) said the network was in “a serious state of disrepair,”
citing transformer leaks and insufficient maintenance and
upkeep.

“Even if the maintenance and refurbishment plans are
properly executed each year, it will still take a number of
years to bring the network back to the required level of
reliability,” it said, adding that it would complete similar
audits of 10 of South Africa’s other main power distributors.

MOTHBALLED POWER STATIONS

Another problem area is soaring demand, which is set to
outpace current output by 2007 — although the government and
generator Eskom have announced plans to recommission several
mothballed power stations and build more from scratch.

Joint generating ventures with other countries in the
region, including an ambitious plan to bring power lines down
from a massive power station planned for the mouth of the
mighty Congo River, are expected to help, but they are years
away from completion — if they are indeed ever built.

And South Africa’s much vaunted Pebble Bed Modular Reactor
nuclear program is a long way from commercial viability.

Melville’s flush diners seem a world away from the poor
townships where jobless levels are highest, but the crowd of
young men guarding cars for small change are a reminder of the
urgency of creating jobs from the booming economy.

Car theft, hijacking and robbery are a serious problem in
Johannesburg and at Spiro’s, Ndlovu fears the gangs will take
advantage of the blackouts to move in on clients heading home.

“The car guards here are my friends — luckily I can rely
on them to tell me if anything’s happening,” he said.

But, as another night of inconvenience draws to a close and
customers drift away, his patience is wearing thin.

“I can’t even offer them coffee because the machine isn’t
working,” he said, writing out a bill.

“How can they enjoy themselves?”