Parts of South Africa Dark for Weeks South Africa has declared an electricity emergency and says it will begin to ration power, increase prices and encourage a switch to solar energy. The move follows two weeks of power outages affecting houses, schools and businesses.
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Parts of South Africa Dark for Weeks

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Parts of South Africa Dark for Weeks

Parts of South Africa Dark for Weeks

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

South Africa is losing power - electrical power. A series of rolling blackouts has hit homes and businesses. They forced the world's largest goldmines to close.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Tens of thousands of jobs are at risk. And all this comes as South Africa is preparing to host soccer's 2010 World Cup.

NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports from Johannesburg.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: South Africa endured the worst blackouts on Thursday when millions of homes and businesses were without power for hours. The situation has severely crippled many businesses, including tourism. On Tuesday, a power cut stranded hundreds of tourists on Cape Town's Table Mountain and in cable cars halfway to the mountain top. South Africans are angry.

Speaking on a busy Johannesburg street, this young delivery man was worried about making his boss's deliveries.

Unidentified Man #1: I can't have all this. I can't make my boss's deliveries.

HUNTER-GAULT: Others were similarly angry, said this interior decorator.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's destructive. I do interior decorating. I can't work.

HUNTER-GAULT: And still another commuter.

Unidentified Man #2: Maybe it's time to immigrate.

HUNTER-GAULT: Here at St. John's Boys School, preppy-looking youngsters gathered outside darkened classrooms. School officials say the school could be coping better if they had had some prior warning.

Anne Nevilleton(ph), the deputy head mistress.

Ms. ANNE NEVILLETON (St. John's Boys School): This caught us unawares, actually, and I think that's been an irritation as well, because had we known that it was going to be this bad at the beginning of the year, we would have made plans last year to actually have the backup and the support in place.

HUNTER-GAULT: Government officials say the underlying problem is a significant rise in demand resulting from a burgeoning economy and rising living standards.

Public enterprises minister Alex Erwin.

Mr. ALEX ERWIN (Minister of Public Enterprise, South Africa): In a sense we're the victims of our own success.

HUNTER-GAULT: But Erwin also acknowledged the government's culpability. He said it shares some blame for ignoring a report 10 years ago by the state power utility Eskom, warning that the nation could face a serious energy crisis by this year, 2008. The government only gave the go-ahead to a new power station building program in 2004.

Mr. ERWIN: Clearly, in hindsight, too late. The president has accepted that this government got its timing wrong.

HUNTER-GAULT: But some analysts insist part of the problem is a lack of skilled workers in Eskom. Azar Jammine is an analyst for the economy consulting group Econometrics.

Mr. AZAR JAMMINE (Analyst): Because of the lack of skills within Eskom, the incidence maintenance is not quite what it ought to have been, and the amount of downtime is increasing even on the capacity that currently exists.

HUNTER-GAULT: Erwin disputes this, but he also acknowledged the problem won't go away for years.

In announcing the national emergency at a briefing in Pretoria, Erwin said the government would be rationing power, raising the price of electricity, and switching to solar power where possible, including traffic lights. He sought to quell concerns that the country would be unable to host the 2010 World Cup.

Mr. ERWIN: I need to stress that the cabinet was fully briefed on the electricity situation as it specifically relates to the World Cup and on general progress with preparations of infrastructure for 2010. There is no threat to the successful holding of the event.

HUNTER-GAULT: Erwin said power shortages would continue to be severe for another two to four weeks, but that the government was working on emergency plans to ease the burden.

Still, some South Africans are taking it all in stride. Michael Tatalias, the CEO of Southern African Tourism Services Association, was sitting in a darkened office when he said he's convinced South Africans will not only endure but prosper, not least because of the jokes that have started to make the rounds.

Mr. MICHAEL TATALIAS (Southern African Tourism Services Association): Oh, well, there's all the other ones about what's the difference between the country and the Titanic. Well, the Titanic went down with the lights on.

HUNTER-GAULT: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Johannesburg, South Africa.

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