South Africa electricity supply crisis: The inside story

Wednesday February 22 2023
The Grootvlei Power Station

The Grootvlei Power Station, a coal-fired power plant operated by Eskom, which is located in Grootvlei, South Africa. South Africa, once Africa’s most sophisticated and developed economy, is virtually in the dark. PHOTO BY GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP


South Africa, once Africa’s most sophisticated and developed economy, is virtually in the dark.

From the lit spot on the continent, politically, economically and technologically, Africa’s third largest economy is tottering on the brink of powerlessness.

But how did Pretoria get here? Short answer: Decades-long rot, series of blunders and leadership failures.

The country’s current challenges, both in the literal sense of electricity supply inadequacy and in terms of the present moment’s requirements, were already evident as a likely future as long ago as the mid- to late-1990s.

Towards the end of the first post-apartheid administration under Nelson Mandela, independent energy experts began issuing warnings that, since no major power production units had been built for some years, South Africa was on track to fall short of its capacity to match demand driven by natural population and economic growth.

‘Energy day zero’


The ‘energy day zero’ was then projected as likely by the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

However, Mandela’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) was focused on a major push to get fresh water, electricity and other key services to the many millions, both rural and increasingly, the urban poor, whose needs had, in effect, been ignored for decades.

The apartheid system meant these people had had little in the way of what the ruling white minority took for granted, this truth pertaining either in “illegal” sprawling shantytowns rising up from undeveloped areas around major urban hubs, or for those left resourceless in so-called ‘homelands’, effectively Bantustans nominally ‘independent’ but actually client pseudo-states answerable to Pretoria.

In both instances, provision of government services was explicitly avoided.

Disadvantaged citizens

The ANC government, from 1994 through to midway the first decade of the 2000s, was consequently focused on bringing some relief to these millions of previously disadvantaged citizens.

Since South Africa had no pressing or immediate requirement to build more generation plants at the time, new projects were repeatedly pushed back and, it was much later learnt, so too were critical maintenance schedules for existing, mainly coal, power stations.

South Africa’s current electricity problems stem directly from decisions made in those years and in the two terms served by Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki, further exacerbated by the two-term era of mass looting of public funds under Jacob Zuma.

In 2001, a new Free Basic Electricity (FBE) policy was introduced by national power provider Eskom, after discussions with the Department of Minerals and Energy.

The Mbeki administration’s view at the time was that “conventionally, the average poor household does not consume more than 50kWh of electricity per month”.

As a result, this amount was to be offered free of charge to any and all who qualified.


It proved difficult to determine a baseline of who was poor to qualify for the subsidy, so it was decided that the subsidy should be available to all consumers, regardless of their income levels.

Consequently, the amount of electricity consumed jumped well out of proportion to economic or population growth over this period, foreshortening the power shortage crisis timeline by several years.

By 2003, it was clear that South Africa would indeed face an electricity shortage in the near future.

After some debate on how to address the issue, Eskom took the ‘easy route’, announcing “a final decision” to return three power stations, previously moth-balled and for a time potentially on sale to a French operating firm – a move prevented by the ANC’s union allies – back to service.

The move came just in time to prevent what today is the routine cutting of power, which has come to be known as ‘loadshedding’, five years earlier than it actually started.

The three retired stations, Camden, Grootvlei, and Komati, came on line just in time to meet a jump in demand, which rose precipitously in line with the country’s economic growth that leapt from 2.9 per cent in 2003 to 4.6 per cent the next year and 5.3 per cent by 2005.

With a growing economy, and a decade into post-apartheid liberation, the dividends of peace and stability were showing up in a healthy economy beginning to burgeon.

But that rapid growth also meant earlier pressure on power provision than had been envisaged a few years prior.

Annual growth

Peak demand on South Africa’s already beginning-to-be-constrained capacity jumped from 31,928MW in 2003 to 34,195MW in 2004.

According to Enerdata, an independent energy intelligence and consulting company, with South Africa holding a steady over 4 per cent annual growth through the first half of that decade, pressure rapidly increased on power production at a rate unexpected a decade earlier.

Total energy consumption peaked in 2008 at 2.9 TOE (Tonnes of Oil equivalent) per capita, TOE being a measure of energy usage, equivalent to that released through the burning of a tonne of crude oil.

From that point, the per capita consumption of energy dropped to 2.3 TOE by 2021 that figure though dramatically lower than a decade and half earlier being still nearly four times the average energy consumption per capita in sub-Saharan Africa.

The high-point of South Africa’s 21st century electricity consumption per capita peaked at 4,500kWh in 2007 before decreasing to 3,284kWh in 2021 – around 10 times the sub-Saharan average.

Total energy consumption

More recently, total energy consumption rebounded by seven per cent in 2021, after a nine per cent drop in 2020 due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Previously, South Africa’s consumption had increased by an average 1.3 per cent per year between 2017 and 2019.

But these figures hide the fact that consumption would have been far higher, but for loadshedding, which began — with some shock to the country and its foreign investors — in 2008.

Meeting the demand unleashed by the liberation of the country’s masses, with some major power plants in construction, the provision of new plants had been pushed onto the backburner in the late 90s and early 2000s. Kendal Power Station is a case in point.

This coal-fired power station lies in Mpumalanga province, which borders Mozambique, and is sited in a major coal-mining area, like several other major South African coal-fired plants.

Built between 1982 and 1993, its first unit went online in 1988.

On completion in 1993, it became the world’s largest indirect dry-cooled power station, and represented a cutting-edge type of coal-fired power production, with each of its six units producing 686MW for a nominal total of capacity of 4,116MW.

Majuba power station

After Kendal came Majuba power station, another multi-unit dry-cooled giant plant, which first went into service in 1996 and was only completed in 2003.

Majuba, also located in the coal-rich province of Mpumalanga, provides a nominal 4,110MW.

The ‘problem of electricity’ seemed to have been solved, or had it?

That was an illusion.

In 1994, the year that apartheid was officially replaced by universal voting and human rights, electricity access was estimated by government departments and officials as between 30 and 36 per cent of the then population of 43.3 million.

Suddenly in short supply

Ten years later, with a population of 48.6 million, and millions more connected, what had seemed a wealth of power was suddenly in short supply.

By 2004, thanks to the ANC government’s intensive electrification drive, many millions of South Africans were enjoying the benefit.

In March 2004, some 7.8 million households – each on average having between six and seven members – had been connected, a massive jump from the three million households connected in 1990.

Foundations of power crisis

These facts form the foundations of the power crisis experienced with increasing intensity over the last decade and a half.

While money had been poured into connecting ever-more people, and with millions also making their own unmetered illegal connections in low-income, high-density suburbs of the country, the maintenance schedules of existing power plants were largely ignored and new plant plans were put on hold.

The result was a shortfall of power output by Eskom, then the sole electricity provider, and well before initially expected, though some forward-looking analysts had a decade earlier anticipated that by 2008 there would already be periods, especially at peak demand in the early evenings of winter months, when demand would outstrip supply.

Jacob Zuma

With the advent of the first administration of President Jacob Zuma in 2009, a simmering problem turned into the making of a full-scale disaster, just as President Cyril Ramaphosa last week declared, was now upon South Africa, as Eskom, along with other key state entities, was stripped of talent and filled with party loyalists willing to engage in mass looting of state funds, known now as ‘state capture’.

For Eskom and power provision, it has been ‘downhill’ ever since, though major efforts have been underway in the last few years under the Ramaphosa administration to put things right in Eskom.