In the Dark: How a Bankrupt Electricity Utility can Bring You Closer to Your Community

So, South Africa’s government-owned electricity utility is nearly bankrupt. There are certainly long-term implications for a country trying to create jobs and shed its unequal past. But on a practical level, this means that for several hours of the day we are experiencing “load-shedding”, the term for the rolling blackouts that are scheduled to relieve pressure on the entire system.

As winter starts to set in, the strain on the electricity system grows, and we have to move into higher stages of load-shedding. For the last several days, we’ve had one or two two-hour periods each day where we don’t have electricity. Apparently, we’ve been lucky: some areas have experienced as much as half the day without electricity. While some larger businesses and complexes have generators, the average business or family can’t afford to build back-up infrastructure, so we just do without.

At our house, we’ve made small adjustments to help get through. Flashlights and headlamps are in most rooms and we’ve downloaded phone apps that send us notifications for when blackouts are most likely to occur. In the mornings, our nanny boils a kettle and stores hot water in a flask for cups of tea and baby bottles. We’ve congratulated ourselves many times over for buying a gas range.

I’ve lived in South Africa long enough that this situation doesn’t come as a surprise. I’m sure I would be disappointed if I had moved all the way to Africa to experience first-world infrastructure. After all, this is supposed to be an adventure.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this situation has made our family’s long-term view on South Africa a bit tenuous.  After all, we have children who will eventually be in school. Our hope is that their school will have electricity for a good part of the day. Right?

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For those of you who were living in NYC in 2003, you’ll remember when the entire Northeast region of the US and Canada lost power on August 14th.  I remember that day clearly. I was unemployed and blissfully unaware that the City had lost power until late in the afternoon when I decided to venture out of the house to meet a friend for a movie.  My friend, who at the time worked for the City’s Office of Emergency Management, clearly was not available to go to the movies with me. Nor was the movie theater operational.

I remember deciding to walk against the tide of Manhattan-based employees who were streaming across the bridges into Brooklyn. Only after several impromptu conversations with strangers did I finally understand the full extent of the scenario.

If you were there, do you remember the sequence of emotions that you felt on that day?

It probably started with a minor sense of annoyance that your email was down or that your computer was perilously close to losing power. It probably escalated as you realized that you had no transport to get you home, and that the situation probably wouldn’t resolve itself before the end of the day.  If you were Erica, who was working in the basement of the Macy’s building, you probably reached a particular low point when the lack of electricity persuaded a large community of rats to venture out for the day.

But as the day wore on and people mobilized against the blackout, something funny happened. We got into it. Bars and restaurants did a brisk business, new friendships were formed as people walked the entire distance to their homes, neighbors finally met each other when they sat on their stoops to avoid the sweltering heat in the buildings.

I remember lighting candles in our little apartment and being surprised at how quiet the neighborhood was without the incessant hum of every appliance, every streetlamp, every lightbulb contributing to the buzzing undercurrent of city life.

I remember enjoying the chatter, people talking to each other as they walked past or simply sat in the twilight enjoying the warm evening.  Cell phones ran out of battery power, TVs were rendered useless, and New Yorkers had nothing better to do than physically connect with each other. (Post-blackout baby booms are still contested, but it doesn’t surprise me one bit.)

NYC’s blackout was one of those days that made you supremely happy to be a New Yorker.

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Back here in Cape Town, load-shedding has resulted in a similar range of emotions.  The difference is that we’re in a long-term scenario. So while families are making small adjustments, businesses are talking contingency plans and the government is revising economic forecasts.

But, economic forecasts aside, something else has happened: we’ve started having pizza parties with our neighbors.

Each Thursday, my son heads to his friend Adam’s house or his mom brings him to ours. A few weeks ago, with yet another load-shedding event looming, we decided to stick together, wait for the husbands to arrive and order pizzas for the kids. Oh and yes, we cracked open a bottle of wine.

(Thank goodness our local pizza joint has a generator – they are definitely not experiencing economic difficulties as a result of load-shedding. They now deliver their pizzas with a small candle.)

While we waited for the pizzas to arrive, the kids ran around the front lawn and we chatted with our neighbor who was out walking the dog. When the lights went out, the kids gathered up the lanterns, flashlights and headlamps and performed a show for us in the dining room.

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Look, we shouldn’t have to rely on bankrupt utility providers or regional blackouts to connect with our neighbors.

But the truth is, some of our modern conveniences have made connecting with each other rather inconvenient.

Air conditioning keeps our doors and windows closed and prevents us from hearing each other. Television and social media keep us fully engaged, removing a need to entertain one another. Families, fatigued by long work days and powered by labor-reducing appliances, operate as single units rather than tapping into communities.

Lack of services, uncertainty, even inefficiency have a funny way of bringing us together. When times are a bit rough, it’s easier to band together. Modern life hasn’t reduced our emotional need to connect with one another, but it has reduced the urgency to do so. And communities suffer as a result.

Fortunately for our pizza parties, South Africa’s politicians have let us know that load-shedding is here for the foreseeable future.

How will you connect with your community today?