South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa skips Davos to deal with crippling blackouts

Public outrage growing as the country endures six hours or more each day without electricity

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa is facing calls for mass protests over the country's electricity crisis. EPA
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South Africa's President has skipped his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos to deal with intense power blackouts crippling the continent's most industrialised economy.

Cyril Ramaphosa is facing growing public outrage and calls for mass protests as the country endures six hours or more each day without electricity.

Residents unable to light their homes or run their businesses blocked streets at the weekend in protest at rolling blackouts that by some estimates are costing the country $200 million daily.

With no quick fixes in sight, the issue is set to dominate next year's general election and become an electoral liability for the ruling African National Congress, the former party of Nelson Mandela.

Mr Ramaphosa had been scheduled to lead a delegation to the Swiss resort town to promote South Africa as an investment destination.

Instead, he will meet leaders of opposition parties, the national energy crisis committee and the board of Eskom, the state-owned national power generator.

Eskom was once judged one of the best power companies in the world, but years of underinvestment, corruption and failure to modernise have left its fleet of coal-fired power stations plagued by breakdowns.

The country began scheduled power cuts more than 15 years ago to protect the grid, but failed to heed warnings or fix the problem. Blackouts have since worsened to their highest level yet.

Lights on at the Braamfonein district of Johannesburg on Sunday just before the rolling blackout kicked in. AFP

Opposition parties and energy industry experts have pleaded with the ANC to open up the industry to private generating companies and to invest in sustainable power sources like wind and solar.

Eskom has also been hobbled by years of systematic theft and looting and the company has become emblematic of corruption under the ANC government and its failure to deliver basic public services.

John Steenhuisen, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, said: “All Ramaphosa is going to do is make more excuses and false 'Ramapromises'.

“It's time for rolling mass protest action across the length and breadth of the country. The citizens of South Africa need to show this government that enough is enough.”

Public anger and disbelief at the blackouts has been compounded by a series of revelations about the challenges facing the company from Andre de Ruyter, the recently resigned chief executive.

He alleged that last month he had been poisoned by a would-be assassin slipping cyanide into his coffee, apparently because of his efforts to stamp out entrenched graft.

'They will make us sit in the dark'

The national energy regulator Nersa also provoked anger last week by announcing an 18.65 per cent tariff hike for the next financial year, despite the loss of service.

Mmusi Maimane, another opposition figure, said: “If we ignore four-hour hour load-shedding sessions, 12 hours a day of lack of power, this government will make us sit in the dark for the whole week soon.

“They are turning South Africa into South Zimbabwe through looting and incompetence and we can’t allow that.”

Mr Ramaphosa's announcement that he would cancel his Davos trip spooked markets and saw the rand plunge more than one per cent against the dollar in early trading on Monday.

Political parties and activists are expected to take Eskom to court for its failure to provide energy.

One local news agency on Monday listed dozens of businesses that had gone bust in the Soweto area due to the lack of electricity. Many small businesses cannot afford generators or fuel during the power cuts.

Many shops and restaurants close because cashiers are unable to take payments, and appliances do not work. Children cannot do homework at night and traffic lights switch off, causing long queues in urban areas.

Updated: January 16, 2023, 2:16 PM