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As a long-time fan of HBO’s SATC, part of my fantasy about working for myself was built around Sarah Jessica Parker’s character as Carrie Bradshaw, a New York-based columnist turned author, who, despite being a freelance worker, miraculously has the means to live a luxurious life that most freelancers can only dream of because she owns her time. Like her, I naively thought working for myself would mean impromptu lunches at fancy restaurants with my besties, shopping for the latest fashion trends, and going on multiple dates with random hunks I met in the streets, but thanks to Eskom, that bubble was unceremoniously burst.
Unlike Carrie, I spend my weekdays under immense pressure trying to get everything compressed into the few hours of electricity we are rationed per day. Under load-shedding, the saying “we all have the same 24 hours” has lost its meaning as I scurry around like a headless chicken getting the kids ready for school while making sure that all the electronics are sufficiently charged so I’m able to join my first virtual meeting of the day (and that is if my internet service provider isn’t glitching because of **drumroll** load-shedding). What could have easily been a dream life of seamless creativity flow, has been turned into a series of nightmares where one is constantly putting out fires.
It’s been 15 years since the energy crisis began. Fast forward to 2023 and load-shedding has become a routine occurrence in most parts of the country. According to The Outlier, 62 days of load-shedding in the first half of 2022 increased to 180 days in the first half of 2023, meaning that in the first six months of this year, we only had one day without blackouts. With the current lessened levels of power outages, it has become easier to make light of what we’ve survived, but sadly many small businesses have not been able to make a recovery. In January this year, The Sowetan dedicated one of its front pages to the small businesses that buckled under the weight of load-shedding – a tragic situation for a country grappling with youth unemployment.
As a freelance creative, the unstable supply of electricity has hit directly home. The critical load-shedding stages have translated to not only loss of income but also the loss of relationships that have been painstakingly built over the years. When you cannot meet deadlines, cannot show up for virtual meetings, or are constantly negotiating deadline extensions, it can become frustrating and unprofitable for clients who work on inflexible timeframes. While local customers may be understanding and accommodating to small business owners during load-shedding, the same cannot be said about international clients and investors.
In addition to these challenges, there’s also the risk of damage to equipment. EskomSePush app has tried to mitigate the problem by providing comprehensive load-shedding schedules that can be used to prepare for oncoming outages. Still, it’s not always possible to be at the right place to unplug equipment and gadgets in time. The power surges that often accompany the return of electricity can destroy equipment, adding to the unbearable financial burdens already on the shoulders of a crawling business.
The mental health implications of power outages are yet another significant element. Following Eskom’s load-shedding forecast in January, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) sent out an online survey to more than 30,000 members of its community to gain insight on the impact of load-shedding in their lives. “Alongside feelings of helplessness, employed survey respondents (74%) were expected to deliver work despite outages, adding high levels of performance anxiety and work-related stress to heavy financial demands caused by secondary impacts of load-shedding (e.g., food spoilage, appliance breakages, etc)”, reported SADAG.
While big businesses may afford to insulate themselves from some of the challenges brought by power blackouts, the lone creative at the bottom may be forced to permanently shutter their doors and face the possibility of unemployment and rapidly deteriorating mental health.