Inside Government: In the event of a total blackout
Inside Government is a newsletter written by Premier Helen Zille.
In the event of a total blackout
The stand-out meeting of the past week was the Premier’s Co-ordinating Forum (PCF), a statutory quarterly get-together of the Province’s Mayors and the Western Cape cabinet, at which we discuss issues that require intergovernmental co-operation. We usually invite the relevant National Ministers and Departmental representatives as well.
One of the items on this week’s agenda was a presentation on how we would co-ordinate our efforts in the (highly unlikely) event of a total electricity blackout. In particular, a presentation by Dave Hugo, a Director with responsibility for infrastructure in the City of Cape Town, made me sit up and take note.
When we have ordinary load shedding, we experience the inconvenience of a cold supper by candlelight without TV (except for those of us lucky enough to have a generator and gas stove).
A total blackout, however, would be a different story altogether. This would occur if unplanned outages resulted in electricity consumption exceeding generation and “tripping the national electricity grid. Should such an unlikely event occur it could take two weeks before the grid could be fully restored. At first it would seem just like the “normal” load shedding, with which we have become all too familiar. The real implications would hit us within 24 hours. And unless there is very careful pre-planning, not even generators can ameliorate the consequences.
Generators need fuel; and once the generator has used up the available supply, what then? Cellphone companies can no longer transmit signals (even if your phone is charged). Radio transmitters also die. So do Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs). Water cannot reach suburbs located at elevations above the bulk storage dam. Within hours, sewage pump stations would overflow, with sewage running into the storm water system, into our rivers and beaches, and onto our crops, with devastating consequences for agriculture and the environment, not to mention public health. Hospitals and clinics would stop functioning. So too, police stations. The criminal justice system, including courts and prisons, would grind to a standstill. Public transport would come to a halt. Shops would close. Criminals would spot their gap. In this context it is easy to see the potential for public panic on an unprecedented scale. Life as we know it, in a modern economy, cannot function without electricity.
And what about Koeberg? Although Koeberg generates electricity, it needs electricity to keep going, and to pump water into the cooling mechanism in order to avert meltdown.
Dave explained what the City and Province were doing, step by step, to ensure that each role player understands what preparedness involves. Every strategic installation requires a generator, and the guarantee of an adequate fuel supply; for this reason the City is negotiating an emergency fuel stock pile to ensure an ongoing supply to key points across the City and Province. Koeberg would be kept going by gas and diesel turbines with enough fresh, standby fuel, to prevent a meltdown; the City has more than 350 sewage pump stations all of which are being fitted with modern generators, as are all hospitals, clinics and fire stations; the City/Province Project Team will shortly be meeting national government to ensure that police stations also have a back-up plan; meetings have been held with the major cellphone companies to synchronise the generation systems required to keep networks operating. Further meetings will soon be held with banks, radio stations and retailers to ensure that their contingency plans are aligned with those of the Province and the City. All major retailers have contingency plans.
The logistics are extraordinarily complicated, with the cost running into hundreds of millions of Rands. New generators, for Cape Town alone, amount to more than R200-million.
Children would stay home from school, and only essential service workers would report for duty. Clinics will be used as communication points where government officials will be on duty every day to inform people of the latest developments.
When Dave had finished his presentation, the discussion began. One Municipal Manager summed up the mood of the meeting when he said: “We have heard from Brian Molefe, Acting Chief Executive of Eskom, that a total blackout is extremely unlikely. Surely we have to be able to take him at his word. We have so many delivery challenges. We just cannot afford to spend millions preparing for something that is unlikely to happen, when we have to provide essential services to residents. What should we do?”
Herein lies the dilemma. The costs of averting disaster in the event of a total blackout can only be carried if we divert money away from basic service delivery. This is a terrible trade-off for any local government to make, especially in towns where the numbers of indigent residents needing basic services are growing so rapidly.
But these are the costs of poor management, bad governance and goal displacement. President Zuma is wrong when he says that the electricity crisis is the result of the rapid expansion of the delivery system to the poor. On the contrary, if Eskom had merely maintained its infrastructure, we would not have had a single day of load shedding. Our country has lost 34% of its electricity generation capacity in the last 20 years because of poor maintenance. That is why we have load shedding, and the remote risk of a total blackout.
Maintenance was not a priority for Eskom, because it was pursuing other goals, such as making “profits” and “ratcheting up” BBBEE requirements so that rent-seeking middlemen could make millions on the basis of their race and political connections. The poor (most of whom are black) are now experiencing the worst consequences of these inverted priorities. The diversion of money from essential infrastructure caused the crisis. It is a tragic irony that we will have to divert even more millions away from basic infrastructure just in case we are hit with the ultimate crisis of a total “blackout”.
It takes the threat of such a crisis to understand the extent to which we rely on electricity, which most of us simply take for granted most of the time.
This is why the role of electricity in our economy is a good metaphor for the role of Constitutionalism in our democracy.
When I talk about the importance of defending our Constitution and the Rule of Law, people often ask me: Why do you keep raising this issue? What does the Constitution mean for poor people? We can’t live in the Constitution or eat the Constitution!
The answer is that we will be unable to expand the opportunities for jobs, housing and food to more and more people if we allow constitutionalism and the rule of law to collapse. If the politically powerful can act in arbitrary ways, determining access to resources; looting the public purse; placing themselves, their friends and allies above the law; hand-picking the public prosecutor and judges; determining access to jobs and opportunities; capturing state institutions; controlling the media; rigging elections; and co-opting the opposition, then we will end up in the political equivalent of a total blackout. Except there won’t be any contingency plans to mitigate the consequences.
Our contingency plans to preserve our democracy must be pre-emptive. We must separate the party from the state; we must ensure that state institutions remain independent to defend the interests of the people, not powerful politicians; we must ensure that all institutions do the job they are required to do under the Constitution without goal displacement; we must create certainty and security to ensure economic growth that creates jobs.
And for this we need Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law. They are every bit as indispensable to our future as electricity.