‘She is scared of the dark’: Survival tactics of ordinary people during load shedding

Big companies may have their own generator to get through load shedding Stage 6, but small businesses have to dig deep.

Big companies may have their own generator to get through load shedding Stage 6, but small businesses have to dig deep. Getty Images

  • Small businesses are despairing over Stage 6 load shedding. 
  • Many cannot afford a generator to see them through the longer periods without power. 
  • A mom who walks her child to creche before work in the dark tells of how terrifying it is for her little girl.  

The move to Stage 6 load shedding due to Eskom’s decades-old problems, compounded by a strike, fills the hearts of the hard-working women at a Sorbet dry bar at Table Bay Mall in Cape Town with despair.

Almost all of the staff – mostly women – are breadwinners, and the best they can do during a blackout is strap headlamps on their foreheads and paint nails in the semi-darkness.

“It is terrible,” says manager Kim Beck.

“The centre doesn’t have a generator, so we got an inverter. But it only gives us one hour of power for every two-and-a-half-hour load shedding slot.

“We are doing nails by headlight,” she said.

They can’t even take appointments based on the load shedding roster, because “it changes out of the blue”, and with the current strike it is even more unpredictable.

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This leaves the staff in the busy hair blowout section sitting around worrying about their income.

Beck said that staff had worked incredibly hard to recoup business lost during the lockdown, where they sat at home for months doing nothing but worry at one stage. They were beginning to feel positive as trade picked up again.

Since mask mandates were dropped, their custom has increased again and they are inching towards two-thirds of the income they generated before the lockdown.

The nail technicians, waxers and hair stylists were feeling upbeat again, as the shop bustled as it did in the pre-Covid days.

Previously disadvantaged people were trained at the Dry Bar academy to become hairstylists. They were looking forward to the usual busy Saturdays, where people streamed in to have their hair done for a special occasion or just a pick-me-up during these difficult times.  But this joy was short-lived, with a quadraphonic groan of disappointment when power was simply cut off due to Eskom not having enough power for the whole country simultaneously.

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Fin24 reported that on the union front, The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa is demanding a 12% wage increase. In comparison, the National Union of Mineworkers has demanded increases ranging between 8% and 10%, and Solidarity is demanding 5.9% increase from the power utility.

Eskom revised its offer upwards to 5% and maintains it cannot afford double-digit increases.

At another mall, almost all shops were closed for load shedding. One manager said they might be able to manage transactions with battery-operated devices, but they have learnt that shoplifting increases significantly while the shop is dark, so they simply close the doors now.

Housekeeper Julia Maenza sets off early every day in a pitch dark Dunoon, north of the Cape Town CBD, during load shedding to take her toddler to creche, before she goes to work.

Maenza said:

She is scared of the dark. I hold her hand and say, ‘just look at the stars’, while we walk. When we get to the creche, the teacher is standing at the gate with a torch waiting for the children.

She also has to walk the gauntlet of tsotsis using the darkness to try and pickpocket or mug people, and then disappear in the warrens of houses and shacks blanketed in darkness.

Once Maenza gets to work, it is a mad rush to stay on schedule with laundry, vacuuming and ironing before the electricity cuts out. Then she works overtime to finish the ironing, leaving later than expected to do the return trip with her daughter from creche.

“It’s terrible,” she says.

The Cape Chamber of Commerce says the blackouts are undermining key jobs in hospitality and micro-enterprises and small businesses because they can’t all afford generators to keep working.

It also undermined the government’s commitments to grow the economy and create jobs.

“In particular, it undermines key job-creation sectors such as the hospitality sector, with micro-enterprises hardest hit because they often lack the resources to afford contingency plans such as generator backup power,” the chamber said.

“South Africa is a resource-rich country that should not be battling to keep the lights on. The tragedy is that state capture, as laid bare in the Zondo Commission report, has seriously retarded our ability to deal with crises of this kind.”

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