This is what could push South Africa to a total blackout – and what would happen next

President Cyril Ramaphosa and former Eskom chief executive officer Andre de Ruyter have warned that political parties and civil action groups risk collapsing South Africa’s grid if they get their way through court action.

Responding to a court application brought by 19 litigants, including the United Democratic Movement (UDM), Mmusi Maimane’s Build One SA and trade union NUMSA, among others, De Ruyter and Ramaphosa said that what is being asked for by the parties is impossible.

The court action was launched in January 2023 following energy regulator Nersa granting Eskom an 18.65% hike in tariffs for the year.

The collective is seeking an order from South Africa’s apex court blocking the increase, having Eskom publish a detailed recovery plan, as well as ending load shedding for critical facilities and infrastructure in the country. This includes hospitals, police stations, schools and small businesses.

However, in his response to the application, De Ruyter says this is simply not possible.

“In most cases, hospitals and clinics, schools, police stations, small businesses,electronic communications networks and telecoms infrastructure are embedded in distribution networks containing other residential and non-residential loads.

“Due to their embeddedness, these institutions cannot be excluded from load shedding without also excluding the other customers who share those distribution lines,” he said.

In other words, he said, to continue to supply an embedded customer with electricity thus requires continuing to supply all theother upstream customers on the distribution line as well.

“Given the very large number of institutions and facilities the applicants seek to protect from load shedding and the fact that most are embedded in distribution networks spread throughout the country, were they to be excluded from load shedding, there would be very little load left to shed to reduce demand on the grid,” he said.

Repeating the information provided to the public with every load shedding alert, De Ruyter said that rolling blackouts are implemented as a last resort to protect the grid from total collapse.

He argued that if the litigants got their way and Eskom was forced to keep the power on for everyone they desired, the risk of a grid collapse and total blackout would increase significantly.

“How long such a blackout would last is impossible to predict with any certainty. However, for the reasons explained by Eskom’s General Manager of Transmission System Operator Ms Isabel Fick, Eskom estimates that it could take up to several weeks to restore the electricity grid, that length of time being highly dependent on thestate of the grid when the black-out occurs,” he said.

“Without wishing to sound alarmist, the consequences of such a blackout would be catastrophic.”

De Ruyter said some of the likely impacts are identifiable from international experiences of extended blackouts.

They include:

  • The loss or interruption of water supply and sewerage treatment;
  • The shut down of telephone and internet services;
  • Rationing and shortages of liquid fuel (petrol and diesel) with knock-on impacts on transport, industry and institutions that depend on liquid fuel to run back-up generators (including hospitals, laboratories, morgues);
  • Digital platforms, including payment platforms and automatic teller machines not running with the consequence ofa shortage of hard currency;
  • Chaos on the roads, as traffic lights go down;
  • Shops and residents will struggle to keep produce fresh, and food supplies will be impacted;
  • A high risk of looting, vandalism and public unrest.

“Self-evidently, a blackout is a risk that South Africa cannot afford to take,” he said. “The relief (from the litigants) defeats the very purpose of load shedding: it requires maintaining much the same level of demand on the grid in circumstances where there is an insufficient supply to sustain that demand. This presents a manifest risk of grid collapse or blackout.”

Aside from the risk of a total blackout, De Ruyter said that granting all the exemptions desired by the litigants would at best require significantly higher stages of load shedding for everyone else.

“Maintaining supply to excluded customers where load shedding is being implemented – and by implication, when all other measures have been exhausted – will require more severe load shedding elsewhere on the grid.”

De Ruyter’s warnings about grid collapsed were echoed by Ramaphosa, who was responding to a separate Constitutional Court application on load shedding.

The president said that the whole country stands to “suffer more harm” if the courts ordered the government and Eskom to provide relief to businesses and facilities mentioned.

“There is serious risk of the electricity grid collapsing to a state of a total shutdown if load-shedding is not implemented in the manner in which it is currently being implemented, ie. In which all sectors of society are switched off from time to time,” he said.

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