My most favourite things right now are a small inverter, two water tanks and a sense of humour. It’s been hard to keep the latter when the foremost givens – access to clean piped water and a reliable electricity supply – are being swept away in South Africa.
South Africans are furious, actually. We arrange ourselves around a schedule of “loadshedding” – rolling power blackouts for up to seven hours a day, sometimes more. Eskom, the state-owned power supplier, has held a monopoly, fiercely protected since apartheid days. It burns coal to generate power, damaging human health and fuelling climate change.
Gutted by wholesale looting that started at the very top of the state, Eskom is underskilled and overstaffed, especially by managers (with obscene salaries). Cautions about a total blackout do not seem farfetched.
And now we are warned of a looming Day Zero for water. Rain has fallen for much of this week. Nevertheless, a drought, coupled with poor (no?) maintenance, has placed Buffalo City Metro, where I live, on Stage 3 water restrictions. As I discovered while reading a long notice on water cuts for repairs yesterday, we’ve been on these restrictions since 1 December. The toxic spill that’s turned our main feeder dam luminous green does not help.
Perhaps we are meant to be grateful. Some towns in the Eastern Cape, like Graaff-Reinet, have no water at all apart from that brought in or found in boreholes by a non-government charity.
This seems a lot of whinging when many rural people, especially in the former apartheid “Bantustan” areas, have never had access to the givens, even when power cables run directly over their villages to reach relatively wealthy communities (“relative” because even the middle class in South Africa is not well-off). Nor do they have easy access to markets; appalling roads and expensive data keep them cut off. But there’ll be even less hope for these areas when the water and electricity catastrophe finally earns us junk status and plunges us into another recession.
Off the grid
What to do? Taking ourselves off the power grid completely is first prize, but too expensive. Government is not making noises about removing the barriers that keep it that way. It’s been talking about bringing in independent power producers – which use renewable sources rather than fossil fuels – for more than a decade. But nothing has really moved from protecting the belching, filthy, polluting monopoly.
My family was among the last to benefit from a rebate offered by Eskom on installing solar geysers (guess the rebate ended because the looters wanted the money).
Early this year, I bought a simple inverter (simple is what I could afford) in a round of loadshedding; I will claim the cost against my taxes. It’s much better than a noisy, diesel-burning generator. My desktop and router stay plugged into the inverter. It means I can work through blackouts and stay connected. It also protects my computer against surges after blackouts – I’ve had to replace two motherboards in two years. When I can afford it, I will buy a solar panel or two to power my inverter. It’s a start.
Thankfully, #him is a gadget freak. Among his many projects is a set of LED lights wired to a small solar panel. That gives us a few hours of light when the blackouts happen at night. It turns us blue, but at least we can see.
We’re now freezing two-litre bottles of water. When the power goes, we pop the frozen bottles into the fridge to help keep it cold. This will help in longer blackouts, which are happening as substations start blowing up in loadshedding.
We should be conserving water at any time. So we collect shower water to flush toilets and collect kitchen rinses to water plants. We’re eyeing a full grey-water recycling system. Again, that’s expensive. Imagine the goodwill that would result if, say, local government dispatched teams to help people put in these systems; so much of the crisis is due to municipalities, which get more than enough from ratepayers to do something like this.
Fortunately, we put in two 5,000-litre water tanks almost a decade ago. We water our vegetables with this water only and we use for handwashing clothes, drinking water (nicer than what comes from the taps), filling containers for a family in the nearby informal settlement. We use tank water to top up our tiny pool, which will double as a reservoir if and when Day Zero arrives.
I will definitely do what my friend, Fiona, does: drink wine, among other things, but mostly, drink wine. She lives in the gorgeous village of McGregor, home to wine farms known for superb offerings; I know because I tested them out myself when I visited last year.
And it’s a pleasure to pull out the candles for dinner and have long conversations instead of, say, watching a movie. We can dust off that sense of humour and laugh.