Apparently something had cracked. Or someone was on crack. Either way, the word “crack” was featuring heavily in explanations for why the country had been plunged into darkness at the weekend. It didn’t really matter, though. Nobody was listening to the explanations.
We used to, once. We would read official statements and google the bits that didn’t make sense, like “spare grid capacity” and “bonuses for Eskom management”. For a while we knew what a megawatt was and how it was generated. We would even debate whether switching off our geyser at certain times helped or hindered the national effort.
Slowly, however, the press statements began sounding familiar. At some point explanations became excuses, the floundering of a naughty school- child. I swear I was going to generate some electricity, Sir, but the dog ate my coal silo. The electricity was in my other pants but my mom washed it and it went soggy. My granny died. Yes, for the sixth time. No, I’ve got seven, I mean eight, grannies; so you can expect two more outages this week .
They sounded as tinny as an empty sardine can turned into a candlestick during a blackout, but at least they made a limited sort of sense. No longer. Today, the competent excuse-writers all work in advertising and the mediocre ones have been deployed to handle figurative fallout from Nkandla and to allay fears of literal fallout from the Russian nuclear deal. Which means the Eskom spin has been left to unpaid interns, who, in the absence of any ability to construct a proper story, have resorted to arbitrary words. Why was the power out this weekend? Because tofu flange bonobo thirteen handkerchief boobies.
Not that our response makes much more sense. The howl that went up as the power went down on Sunday was like the sunset chorus in a jungle canopy, a cacophony of anxiety over the coming darkness – “Government! Idiots! Planning! Eskom! ANC! Bad!” – that made us feel better for a while but, like Eskom, shed very little light.
It is tempting to condemn Eskom alone, to imagine that it is staffed exclusive by the Minions from Despicable Me; gibbering lozenges with comb-overs. But where, amid all our therapeutic anger, was mention of BHP Billiton, the Anglo-Australian mega-corporation that sucks up almost 6% of all electricity generated in South Africa to feed its two smelters in Richards Bay? Surely if we condemn Eskom we should at least be questioning why this company has cost a taxpayer-aided utility almost R12-billion – 50 Nkandlas – by paying a vastly discounted price for the electricity it eats?
If we want to point the finger then let’s start with ourselves for putting up with subsidising an unimaginably rich multinational; for sighing in the dark while British and Australian multimillionaires stand under gleaming chandeliers and raise glasses of champagne to our collective apathy.
Still, on Sunday evening there seemed little point in complaining. The only complaints that governments seem to take seriously are delivered via a ballot box or a Kalashnikov, and since it’s not an election year and I’m a rotten shot I decided that the best response was to leave behind the cares of the electricity-driven world. I would take in some of the natural charms of my city, which, at least until Koeberg develops a “crack”, is particularly lovely to wander through at dusk.
As the light dimmed, the place become beautifully sinister. Buildings faded into the gloom, turning streets into canyons, balconies into crags and ledges. Some people, unable to cope with the night closing in around them, clustered in the brightly lit aisles of Woolies, pretending to be looking for something but really just soaking up the familiar neon glow.
Others were braver. The promenade was packed with people moving and murmuring like a herd of amiable beasts arriving after a long trek at the night’s resting place. It felt good to be released from the grip of electricity, as if some sort of leash, endlessly twitching us this way and that, had been slipped off. E-mail, social media, the garish propositions of billboards, the sadly stark shop fronts with their wares pointlessly lit up for a night of solitude – all were gone, and all that remained was the sky, dusted with stars, the twinkle of a ship’s lights, and the deep shade erasing the horizon and turning the world into night.
When the power came back on some time later, the harsh light of reality returned. The shadows were stripped away, the stars were outshone. It was a relief. But just for a moment I wished that Eskom hadn’t pulled itself together quite so quickly; that we might get one more lame excuse, and just a few more minutes of the deep, peaceful dark.
First published in The Times and TimesLive