Like many students preparing for exams, Lindokuhle Mdlalose has been revising in the early hours of the morning and losing out on sleep. However, the 21-year-old’s midnight study sessions are by necessity, not choice, as power cuts cripple South Africa.
The country’s worst electricity blackouts in more than two years, intended to take pressure off the creaking power grid after worker strikes and years of poor maintenance, have left households struggling during several hours of darkness each day.
Those that can afford extra internet data, generators and solar panels are managing to cope, but for many, their studies, businesses and ability to work from home are on the line, widening the gap between the digital haves and have-nots.
“I wake up at midnight, study for two hours while there is power, sleep and then go to college,” said Mdlalose, who is studying to be a teacher at a Johannesburg college.
Although Mdlalose is allowed to do her exams at home, her weak laptop battery means she has to spend more on transport to travel to the university in order to use its generator.
“We just had to adapt, but it is costing us,” she added.
Mdlalose said she also has to buy more data and ready-made meals due to the power cuts – locally called ‘load-shedding’ – and with high inflation – her family is already under strain.
Local economists estimate that power cuts, locally called ‘load-shedding’, is costing the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) 4 billion rand ($232 million) per day.
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank, and this inequality is also apparent in the so-called digital divide between those who are able to access the internet and technology and those who cannot.
With job and education prospects at risk, technology experts are calling for more affordable data packages to ensure South Africans can stay online and get by throughout the power crisis.
“(These power cuts) are perpetuating the poverty cycle in South Africa,” said Phumzile Van Damme, an independent digital rights advocate and former member of South Africa’s parliament.
“It’s made life incredibly difficult for the vast majority of South Africans. They can’t study and they can’t look for jobs,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Safety and suffering
In Johannesburg’s Soweto township, Ntombikayise Setyila feels like a digital nomad, taking her laptop to work at the homes of friends who can still generate power during blackouts.
Yet the 44-year-old fears for her safety, given the city’s high crime rate.
“You can’t just go around everywhere with your backpack,” said the coordinator for an accountancy firm, who mainly works from home.
“I live in a community where everyone is hungry, if they see me with a laptop, they see an item that can put food on the table.”
To avoid this, Setyila has decided to use Uber more than public transport, an additional expense that alongside data and gas is costing her an extra R2 000 ($117) each month.
“The poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer,” said the mother-of-two.
“The government should make sure we are all looked after equally,” she said, while also urging companies to consider the challenges staff face working from home.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last week said it was the government’s priority “to stabilise the electricity system” through resolving labour strikes, boosting law enforcement, and investing in clean energy alternatives.
Meanwhile, Mdlalose said the power cuts have hit poorer students the hardest – with many being disrupted mid-exams when their laptop batteries died at home and could not be charged.
“They are more disadvantaged than the students who can pay for more data or have a generator,” she said.
“They are suffering.”
High data costs
During the nation’s Covid-19 lockdowns, some South African universities gave students data packages to keep studying from home. Yet students such as Mdlalose believe this is needed now more than ever as Wi-Fi routers cut out when the power does.
Digital rights advocate Van Damme said there needed to be more competition in the telecommunications market in order to lower prices.
South Africans pay up to R85 ($5) per gigabyte of data, a cost equivalent to nearly four hours work for people earning the minimum wage.
That compares with about $1.53 per gigabyte in North Africa and $2.47 in Western Europe, according to the Ichikowitz Family Foundation charity that highlights, among other topics, sub-Saharan Africa’s sky-high data costs.
A combination of poor infrastructure and the control that telecommunication operators have over consumer rates are among the leading causes of Africa’s high data costs, researchers say.
The Ichikowitz’s recent Africa Youth Survey found that while 71% of African youth saw universal Wi-Fi as a fundamental human right, only one in eight could afford coverage at all times.
The lack of access is fuelling growing exasperation on the continent, said Van Damme, referencing the #datamustfall protests about high costs that have resurfaced over the years since 2016.
“There is growing anger and frustration and communities want solutions now,” said Van Damme.