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South Africa's power grid is collapsing and outages are disrupting the economy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

South Africa's economy is not so good at all because its power grid is collapsing. The president there is considering declaring a national state of disaster. Mpho Lakaje reports from Soweto, the famous township of Johannesburg.

MPHO LAKAJE, BYLINE: Mohato Mokoka is racing against the clock, rushing to produce as much ice as possible...

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CRUNCHING)

LAKAJE: ...Before the next scheduled power cuts at 5 p.m. Such outages, known as load shedding, take place up to three times a day across South Africa.

MOHATO MOKOKA: We're sitting at a production rate now of about 10- to 15% from your 100% production.

LAKAJE: But the power outages are crippling Mohato's business. He's literally watching it melt away.

MOKOKA: What you would deliver weekly, which is 500 bags, you had to drop off to about 200 bags. We had to limit us having new clients. We had to limit doing events.

LAKAJE: Producers of perishables like wine, poultry, fruit and vegetables aren't spared either.

ALAN STRATFORD: Just pouring 21,000 liters of milk down the drain - there it goes.

LAKAJE: Dairy farmers like Alan Stratford are forced to throw their profits away.

STRATFORD: Couldn't cool the milk quick enough, and so now it's gone sour.

LAKAJE: And in South Africa these days, even the dead aren't immune from load shedding. With the constant power interruptions, mortuary fridges are failing.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in non-English language)

LAKAJE: The energy crisis has brought many people out on the streets. South Africans lives are ruled by load shedding, and they've had enough. The state-owned energy utility Eskom has to schedule blackouts of up to 12 hours a day in order to prevent the total collapse of the power grid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: We must, without delay, deal with the electricity crisis that faces the nation. That is a primary objective and a primary task.

LAKAJE: And while President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledges that South Africa's national power grid is falling apart, the ruling African National Congress Party has done very little to prevent its imminent collapse.

RAMAPHOSA: The cumulative impact of historical underinvestment in maintenance and assets is now resulting in a series of breakdowns.

LAKAJE: But now the government has no choice but to act, and the president is considering declaring a national state of disaster, which would open the way to fast-track spending.

LUNGILE MASHELE: We are now in the 16th year of load shedding in this country with no reprieve in sight.

LAKAJE: Independent energy expert Lungile Mashele says this is a man-made crisis.

MASHELE: You've got a political crisis, which started in 1997, where the then-CEO of Eskom alerted government and told them that, if we do not get additional capacity in, we are going to start load shedding from 2007, which is exactly what happened.

LAKAJE: However, she maintains that Eskom can still turn the corner - with political will, of course.

MASHELE: So you get the adequate skills in. You get procurement in. You get the funding in, consulting engineers, lawyers, and you hold contractors accountable for what has to happen.

LAKAJE: Most importantly, corruption, which the government admits has contributed significantly to the crisis at Eskom, has to be addressed. But the ruling ANC doesn't have time on its side. South Africans will be heading to the polls in national elections next year, and the energy crisis may influence the outcome.

For NPR News, I am Mpho Lakaje, Soweto, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mpho Lakaje