We are all familiar with the legend of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a storm in order to prove the electrical nature of lightning, a fact that is universally known today. However, in the early 1800s, this was a revolutionary idea. Rather than question why this grown adult was flying a kite in a storm, lets rather look at the impact that electricity has had in South Africa.

The above image reflects the levels of light pollution in the world. If you take a closer look, you will notice that that the continent of Africa appears to be barely lit compared to its northern counterparts. However, the good news is that the concept of electricity actually exists in Africa. In fact, 45% of the electricity generated in Southern Africa is produced by a very infamous state-owned entity in South Africa called Eskom.

Africa is not known  for coming up with the latest cutting-edge technology. That is why I was astonished when I found out that South Africa gains a lot of attention when it comes to electricity being used for mining activities. As compared to other African countries, South Africa was eager to move forward into the industrial revolution. In fact, by 1915, South Africa had managed to have several municipalities with their own power supply. They were so good at producing electricity that they managed to halve the price in a decade.

Eskom, the company that generates 95% of electricity in South Africa and around 40% of  electricity in Africa recently announced that it would implement stage 6-load shedding which meant that South Africans would have to brace themselves for a blackout at any point of the day. 

So how did a company that was so prestigious end up being the center of attention for all the wrong reasons?

South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to begin generating electricity as early as the 1800s. By that I mean, South Africa had electric street lights while the UK was still using gas; that is how far ahead it was. They started off by generating electricity for mining. As time went by and oil became more expensive, South Africa found itself expanding in terms of generating power by making electricity cheaper. As the 19th century drew to a close, many white people at the remotest of farms had electricity whilst the majority of black households didn’t. When the new democratic government took over, there was more competition and there was more emphasis on the privatization of SOE’s. At that time Eskom had identified that more than  40% of all homes in South Africa and thousands of schools and clinics didn’t have access to electricity. The new government had a mission to power up over a million homes that were without electricity prior to a democratic South Africa. That was successfully achieved by the year 2000. Furthermore, The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has honoured Eskom for openness and responsiveness, by rewarding the power utility with its 2015 Golden Key award for the “Most responsive Public Body”.

The cliche “all good things come to an end” was true for Eskom as there was an increasing demand for electricity due to an increasing population their non-renewable resources were dwindling. Its glory days did not last long as corruption, greed and poor management crept in. The solution was highly unpopular. Eskom implemented rolling black-outs which meant that most of the country would be without electricity for at least 2 hours a day. It may seem like 2 hours without electricity per day is a small ask but there are numerous businesses that rely on the grid being powered up in order to thrive. As such, many of them resorted to finding other means for power. And those that could not afford generators ended up losing money and shutting down which had a bad impact on the economy.  Fast-forward to 2019 and we have not seen a permanent solution as we have become accustomed to loadshedding.

As Eskom goes through numerous bailouts and ever-changing directors, what will the future be for this once successful powerhouse?

In a series of articles, we want to delve into the history of Eskom to discover what made it successful, what led to the power struggle it is currently experiencing and what are possible solutions that could return it back to efficiency?

Enter your email address below to get informed on our next article about why eskom was started and its early history within the context of Arpartheid South Africa in the 20th century.

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