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Why is South Africa facing its worst power crisis in two years?

As Stage 6 continues.
Image: Bloomberg

South Africa is facing its worst power cuts in two years this week as state utility Eskom implements Stage 6 outages, meaning at least six hours without power a day for most South Africans.

Eskom has struggled to meet electricity demand in Africa’s most industrialised economy for over a decade, but the outages have not been this severe since December 2019.

Read: No protest planned at Eskom’s head office on Friday, says Numsa

Below are key facts about the current crisis:

Labour action 

Eskom has blamed the severe outages on an unlawful labour strike which started last week. Workers staged protests at multiple Eskom facilities after salary negotiations with trade unions reached a deadlock on Tuesday.

On Monday night, 10 generations units broke down and Eskom said it was only able to restore three to service as the strike continued. This triggered “Stage 6” outages.

Similar protests over wage talks in the past have also hampered operations.

The utility is set to meet with workers’ unions on Friday to discuss a new pay offer to try to settle the dispute.

Even if an agreement is reached to end the strike, Eskom says a backlog of maintenance work could take weeks to clear and that the system remained vulnerable to additional breakdowns.

Longstanding issues 

With an ageing coal fleet that is highly prone to faults, Eskom has struggled to meet demand since 2007, choking economic growth.

Eskom routinely implements scheduled power cuts, called “load-shedding,” to prevent a strain on the system that could cause a total blackout and to replenish emergency generation reserves.

Already burdened with unsustainable debt levels, its unreliable coal-powered plants force it to spend large amounts on diesel for back-up generators while its tariffs are not yet cost-reflective.

The firm said in December it expected its gross debt to rise to R416 billion by March 2022 because of funding postponed from the previous year.

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