Posted on March 18, 2008

Lights Out in South Africa

Jennifer Barry, Financial Sense (San Diego), March 14, 2008


As I was finishing that essay, South Africa showed me a textbook example of what happens when you let neglect go on too long. Their government announced a “national emergency” on January 25, 2008 as the instability in the power grid threatened collapse of the network1. The government owned utility Eskom ordered the largest mines to close and cut power to millions of homes and businesses, an emergency tactic they call “load shedding.” The mines had to stop work for five days, and then agree to cut back 10% of their usual power demands2. This crisis is playing out like a chapter from Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged.

While coal and aluminum companies were impacted, the gold and platinum miners suffered more as their mines are very deep—over a mile below the surface. It’s not safe to send workers down shafts unless at least 90% power is guaranteed. One large company, Harmony Gold estimated that the production halt prevented them from mining over 25,000 ounces of gold3. The miner laid off 5,000 workers in February in order to return to profitability4. Uranium production may drop as well, since many companies like AngloGold produce uranium as a by-product of gold.

Other commodities are affected by the electricity instability as well. Last month, Xstrata declared force majeure in contracts with vanadium and ferrochrome customers as it feared it would be unable to deliver adequate amounts of these inputs to steel production5. ArcelorMittal faced a similar situation, and may have to import steel to supply customers at a higher cost6. Analysts expect a global short term steel shortage as well.


Alec Erwin, the South African Minister of Public Enterprises claims the government is the victim of its own success in growing the economy so rapidly and connecting black townships to the grid. However, the boom in the economy was necessary to decrease the high unemployment rate of 25.5%10.

Now traffic crawls to a standstill when the stoplights go out, and restaurants have to close since they can’t cook. Some industries are looking at generators or alternative sources of power, but the price may be too high for small firms11. These companies may have to move offshore where they can get steady electricity or shut down. A company that makes plastic milk bottles claims it’s losing 4 million Rand per week due to the power fluctuations (approximately USD $500,000). Complaints by CEOs of the economic damage have been belittled by the government, as Trevor Manuel, the Minister of Finance referred to loss estimates as “overcooked and utter garbage”12 .

As South Africa’s electricity market is dominated by Eskom, a public company, no one knows what the real cost of electricity is. For years electricity was ample and cheaper than other developed countries, probably due to taxpayer subsidies13. This encouraged waste by consumers and high use by industry.


Much of the problem has arisen from Eskom’s rigid interpretation of South Africa’s affirmative action program, black economic empowerment or BEE16. While there was much oppression under the former apartheid system, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction. The company notonly favored black owned vendors, but moved in 2002 to a strict “hierarchy of procurement” in purchasing coal. Eskom started by sourcing coal from black female suppliers, then small black owned companies, then large black firms, then companies with pro-black practices, and then other suppliers. Only if the first supplier couldn’t accommodate would Eskom move down the chain to lower priority vendors.

However, it’s the quality of the coal is also a problem. The government blames wet coal, although coal burns better wet than when dry. In actuality, Eskom purposely sources coal of such poor quality it can’t be exported. The utility can demand a steep discount from local suppliers17. Frequently, it’s full of rocks and is so fine it turns into mud in the rain18. Although even the lowest grade coal has increased in price, the power company refuses to pay more for its contracts.


While small companies became insolvent, Eskom was very profitable. In 2006, the utility netted R6.45 billion (about USD $840 million). Over the past three years, the directors received R57 million in bonuses (equivalent to USD $7.44 million) while the electric grid disintegrated.

During the crisis, Eskom continued to export electricity despite government statements to the contrary. Over 1,500 megawatts were delivered to neighboring countries while South African cities were suffering rolling blackouts.

Eskom has also stumbled due to lack of qualified personnel. Bowing to political pressures, the skill shortage a union warned Eskom about was ignored in favor of racial and gender quotas. The utility’s workforce was cut in half over the past 15 years, as technically competent whites were denied employment. Eskom’s HR department sent out a memo in January 2008 right before the crisis stating, “No white male appointments for the rest of the financial year.”19

South Africa is suffering a “brain drain” as skilled workers—including former Eskom engineers—continue to emigrate to countries like New Zealand and Australia. Approximately one million whites left the nation between 1995 and 200520. Most of those whom emigrated due to high crime and limited economic opportunity were productive workers between the ages of 20 and 40. As the core of the workforce continues to seek jobs elsewhere, the nation suffers as a result. A South African entrepreneur explained, “Racism in any form, when introduced into the economy, can only yield what we are now reaping. Economic chaos and failure.”21

Instead of addressing the issues that suffocated supply, Minister Erwin stated that the government will respond to the crisis by squelching demand. Eskom will be ordered to enact large rate increases, fines, penalties and even disconnection if power use is deemed excessive. Only a state owned utility would attempt to discourage purchasing their product.


It’s true that South Africa doesn’t dominate gold production any more, as it dropped to the second largest supplier last year at 11.1% of the market23. However, with increasing demand from the Chinese and the Indians getting back into the market (per Le Metropole Cafe), the price should have jumped more.


As I discussed last month, infrastructure development and rebuilding is a key trend in today’s world. Not only can you invest in this area profitably, countries that fail to maintain their infrastructure deserve your attention. Even if a country has good mining laws and is politically stable, it has to ensure that industry can work efficiently and move its products to market.