Impacts of Grid Collapse in South Africa


2023 was by far the worst year for load-shedding yet. 

Despite the ANC and Eskom’s repeated assurances that a total grid collapse won’t happen,  South Africans have many good reasons to doubt that assessment. 

The government and Eskom have consistently fallen short of their promises to expand South Africa’s electricity generation capacity, and load-shedding appears to be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

So, just how close is South Africa to a total grid collapse?

Read on to find out. 

(Source: BusinessTech)

 How Close Is South Africa To Total Grid Collapse?

Since load-shedding began in 2009, 2023 was the worst year yet.

 According to BusinessTech:

The average South African citizen spent 19.9% of the year with zero power. The accumulated blackout hours in 2023 were more than all the hours counted between 2014 and 2022 combined, making up 56% of the 129.5 days of total blackout hours between 2014 and 2023.    

The forecast for 2024 is less than encouraging.

Independent energy analysts like Pieter Jordaan predict that load-shedding may be more “moderate” in 2024. 

But even the most optimistic projections predict an average of 2.5 blackout hours per day for each South African resident.

The fundamental reason for load shedding is that the demands of consumers and industry for electricity vastly outstrips Eskom’s supply.    

Eskom relies almost entirely on burning coal to generate electricity. Even at 2023’s peak capacity, the maximum base load achieved by South Africa’s power plants combined was 18.5GW — 2GW below what many experts deem necessary to “keep chronic load shedding at bay.”

(Source: Eskom)

South Africans are far too familiar with the stages of load-shedding.

But almost no one is prepared for a total grid collapse.

Portions of the country have gone without electricity for days at a time. 

For example, In 2023, vandalism caused electricity pylons to collapse onto the N4, leaving 2.5 million Pretorians without power.  

However, despite a close call in 1974, a nationwide power outage has not occurred in South Africa to date.

Furthermore, ANC and Eskom officials — in addition to outside experts — have repeatedly stated that a total grid collapse is highly unlikely to occur.

Eskom’s electricity generation failures are well known and the primary cause of load-shedding.

Despite that, Minister of Electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa said in 2023 that generation shortfalls pose less of a threat of causing total grid collapse than “bottlenecks on Eskom’s transmission grid.”

Ramokgopa estimated that “R390 billion will be required over the next decade to meet the demand for grid capacity.” 

Only a “perfect storm” could cause total grid collapse, said former senior Eskom transmission manager Hein Vosloo in a 2023 interview with Times Live

“That means the diesel power stations in the Cape fail, as well as the hydro supply from Cahora Bassa in Mozambique and both Koeberg units. The dams at our pump stations must be empty,” he said.

“If this perfect storm happens, we will have a blackout and repairing it [quickly] would be virtually impossible because we won’t have electricity to get the system up and running again. That can cause weeks of blackout.”

Even if total grid collapse is “implausible,” it’s not impossible. 

Fanele Mondi, CEO of the Energy Intensive Users Group, told BusinessTech, “Even if we don’t expect a national collapse of the grid, I would still urge citizens to have backup plans in place.”

What Impacts Would a Total Grid Collapse Have In South Africa?

What happens if the experts are wrong and the doomsday scenario of total grid collapse takes place?

It’s difficult not to catastrophise and predict apocalyptic outcomes, but even attempts at circumspection yield a terrifying forecast. 

Eskom denies the likelihood of a nationwide power outage but admits that “serious consequences” would result, warning of “widespread looting, hospital deaths, morgues running out of space and the possibility of explosions at power stations as they try to restore power.”

Several years ago, Gav Hurford, National Control Manager of Transmission at Eskom, gave a talk at NSTF supporting load-shedding by comparing the consequences of a nationwide power outage to the 2019 blackouts in Venezuela.

Perhaps inadvertently, Hurford provided “a terrifying glimpse into (what) an Eskom grid collapse” could look like.   

Here’s a summary of potential impacts. 

Economic Shutdown and Plummeting GDP

Without power, the economy would essentially grind to a halt.

Load-shedding cost the SA economy an estimated R1.6 trillion in 2023.

A nationwide power outage would make that look like a drop in the bucket.

Communication Blackout

According to Noëlle Van der Waag-Cowling, cyber programme lead at Stellenbosch University’s Security Institute for Governance and Leadership, “South Africa’s Communications system is completely dependent on its energy system… a ‘single point of failure’ manifested in some form of grid collapse would have ‘significant’ consequences.”

Sectors that a communication breakdown would have the worst impact include:

Water Supply Interruption

Much of South Africa’s water supply relies on electricity for delivery. 

During the above-mentioned 2023 power outage in Pretoria, residents of Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Eersterust, and Mamelodi lost access to running water, and the Mooikloof, Grootfontein, Carina Street, and Garsfontein reservoirs ran dry.    

During a nationwide power outage, access to clean running water would soon become unavailable.

Looting and Civil Unrest

Protests over planned load-shedding and outages due to the “rampant theft” of power cables have become increasingly commonplace, as has looting.

If the grid were to collapse entirely for any length of time, South Africa could quickly descend into chaos

Increased Property Crime and Violence

There’s ample statistical evidence that load-shedding has led to a substantial escalation in crime, particularly interpersonal crimes like robberies

Insurance companies estimate that burglaries, home break-ins, and motor vehicle accidents spike dramatically during rolling blackout hours — especially on weekends. 

The statistical increase in violent and property crime during a total grid collapse is impossible to predict. Still, the mere thought is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many South Africans.

Final Thoughts

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s primarily thanks to load-shedding that a total grid collapse in South Africa remains unlikely.

But that thought may provide little comfort as you endure more seemingly endless hours without electricity.

Even if the perfect storm required to cause a nationwide power outage never arrives, you should take proactive steps to protect your home and family.

EcoFlow’s DELTA solar generators are an affordable off-grid electricity solution to keep your home up and running during load-shedding — and EcoFlow solar panels are eligible for the new federal tax credit.

If total grid collapse ever does occur, you’ll be much better prepared for the consequences with an EcoFlow solar generator.

EcoFlow is a portable power and renewable energy solutions company. Since its founding in 2017, EcoFlow has provided peace-of-mind power to customers in over 85 markets through its DELTA and RIVER product lines of portable power stations and eco-friendly accessories.

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