When South Africa’s economy sneezes, the rest of Africa catches a cold. Now, with the lights flickering on the tip of the continent, the fragile economies of sub-Saharan Africa are seriously endangered. South Africa is the continent’s wealthiest state, both in GDP per capita and total GDP, so serious repercussions are felt by many countries when the giant falters.
And falter it is, as rolling blackouts and brownouts cut into every facet of life—and the economic development—of the country. Failure to plan for and construct adequate electric power generating capacity has caused leading gold, diamond and platinum mines to stop production, not only sending world gold and platinum prices to record highs but adding thousands of workers to the already-high (25%) unemployment rate.
I wrote many pages of notes by lantern light and headlamp while doing on-site research in Africa for Heart of Diamonds. Power in many nations in the region is generated and delivered through chewing-gum-and-paper-clip networks, with South Africa’s heretofore adequate capacity filling in the gaps. The failure of the S.A. system to keep up with rising demand has further crippled an tottering system that the World Bank estimates has already clipped 2% off the region’s growth rate.
The S.A. government monopoly Eskom, was warned in a 1998 report that it would run short of power in 2007, but bureaucratic intransigence and financial problems stalled upgrades. Even by the most optimistic estimates, it will take at least seven years for new capacity to come on line and begin to make a dent in the situation.