Maverick Citizen

IN THE DARK

Fear & loathing in Hillbrow: How load shedding is experienced in Joburg’s gritty inner city

Ponte Tower in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sydney Seshibedi)

South Africans were once again hit by rolling blackouts last week. Daily Maverick spent a morning walking around Johannesburg’s inner city to get a sense of how the power failures are affecting residents and businesses.

It’s 9am on Wednesday in the buzzing inner city of the Joburg metro. 

While most streets in Hillbrow are fairly chaotic, the busiest of all is between Twist and Goldreich streets. From early morning, traffic starts building up. Pedestrians jostle one another on the crowded pavements or try to cross the road without getting wiped out. 

In the hustle and bustle, the smell of food in various stages of decomposition permeates the air. The smell comes from mounds of rotting vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and cooked leftovers. It’s still early, but the Masha supermarket (spaza shop) is in darkness. It’s not good for business.

Hillbrow, listed as “Region F” of the City of Joburg, has been hit by Stage 2 load shedding.

Vish Sinkar, the owner of Masha supermarket, says that few people are encouraged to come into a darkened shop.

“What worries me is that for the next two hours there will be no business until the electricity is back. People are scared to come in and buy. We also feel unsafe… we worry that opportunists might try to clean us out because we do not have backup power or generators. When there is no power like now, business cannot continue as usual.”

Sinkar continues: “We are losing a lot of money with perishables going bad in fridges… even when the electricity comes back, there is too much power flowing through circuits, which causes constant trips. If the unbalanced flow of power continues, it may result in system faults that can either cause fire or damage appliances… the City and Eskom do not care about this, we have to see it through.”

By 10am, along Joe Slovo Road and the Charlton access road that separates Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, the noise of cars, taxis and scooters hooting is deafening as the heaving mass of vehicles crawls by. Many drivers are frustrated at having to navigate their way through the mayhem. The traffic lights are dead and a couple of officials from the Johannesburg Metro Police Department are on duty along Joe Slovo and Charlton roads.

Taxi driver Sibonelo Mazibuko is among the many motorists stuck in traffic. He tells Daily Maverick that load shedding causes chaos in people’s lives – no matter where you are.

Load shedding also causes heavy traffic in Johannesburg’s central business district, which frustrates many drivers and passengers. (Photo: Michelle Banda)

Ave inesdina lendaba yogesi ohamba njalo – load shedding is annoying, and the worst thing about it is that you can never prepare for it because the schedule times change all the time. It is hard to safely navigate through the traffic, especially during peak hours.”

At 10.45am in Jeppestown, the Maboneng precinct was a little brighter – befitting its Sesotho name, meaning “place of light” – even during load shedding. Here, many shop owners have invested in generators and backup power suppliers – something that’s hard not to notice as noise levels are off the charts.

A few blocks from the Maboneng precinct, we see smoke in the air and pick up the unmistakable aroma of boerewors and steak sizzling over the coals.

The smoke comes from one of Joburg’s oldest markets, Kwa Mai Mai, a down-to-earth spot popular for its traditional South African street food like iskopo and uphuthu (cow head and Krummel pap), and braai meat served with Krummel pap and salsa salad. The market doubles as a taxi rank with many local and long-distance drivers stopping by to grab a bite from early in the morning until late in the evening.

An elderly woman who gave her name as Malindi told Daily Maverick that when there is load shedding at night, they shut down when it starts to get dark. “Luckily we rely on fires to make most of the food here. I can only imagine the impact if we relied on the electricity supply.

We want to work until late like other restaurants, but that’s impossible because of load shedding. From Thursday business is booming in the evening, but because of load shedding we have had to close.”

A resident of Jewel City, a new complex opposite Maboneng, says they appreciate the lights and the easygoing vibe during the day. It’s a different story at night, especially when the power fails.

“Once the lights go off, all we hear are gunshots and screams. I always make sure I am home before 6pm in case we are load-shed at night, so that I won’t have to manoeuvre my way back to the house in the dark… it is unsafe. I can get raped or even killed. 

“I make sure that by 6pm I have everything I need in the house. I worry a lot when my husband is working late – each time I hear gunshots and screams, I’m thinking it could be him. I feel relieved when he walks through the door,” said the resident, who did not want to be identified.

Walking through the Joburg CBD, past the Carlton Centre shopping mall, residents and businesses reported similar feelings of fear and despair. 

People take refuge from the sun in the air-conditioned mall, which is equipped with generators. The place is absolutely crammed and it’s business as usual for those fortunate enough to have power.

On one side of the road, the traffic lights are working. On the other side, they’re out. There’s no logical explanation for it.

Along Eloff Street, leading to Small Street, owners of clothing shops are selling their wares out on the pavement as customers are reluctant to enter the unlit premises.

Shopkeepers loudly soliciting business tell Daily Maverick that the renewed load shedding had impacted heavily on their small businesses, coming in the wake of losses experienced during months of lockdowns.

One store owner who declined to be identified (many of the traders are foreign nationals) said: “Small businesses are at the brink of collapse as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the increasing load shedding, things are getting worse by the day.”

Another shop owner, who also declined to be named, said: “With load shedding at least twice a day, and alternating at times, it is hard to plan or work around it. Not all of us can afford generators and petrol to keep our lights on. If there is no money coming in at the end of the month, we won’t have enough to pay rent and wages. Eventually, we may be forced to lay off staff or shut down.”

At around 11.30am, the lights come back on as Daily Maverick leaves the CBD. We returned to the inner city two days later, on Friday, as the area was due to be hit with Stage 4 blackouts. However, the lights stayed on as load shedding was suspended at the last minute.

Load shedding is now on hold – until the next time. And there will be a next time. DM

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