“A state of destruction”: Activists gather at SONA to demand an end to rolling blackouts

President Ramaphosa announces state of disaster to deal with energy crisis during his State of the Nation Address this evening

By Marecia Damons

9 February 2023

Activists are demanding an end to Eskom’s rolling blackouts and the devastating impact it is having on daily life. Photos: Ashraf Hendricks

Hundreds of people affiliated with civil society groups gathered in Hanover Street in Cape Town’s city centre ahead of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday. The activists were demanding an end to Eskom’s rolling blackouts, which are having a devastating impact on daily life. The gathering was facilitated by #UniteBehind.

This comes as the President announced in his speech tonight that the government will be entering the country into a national state of disaster, with immediate effect, to address the energy crisis.

“We have gathered together because of our pain, suffering, anger and fear at the destruction of Eskom over more than two decades. We refuse to accept this anymore,” the groups said, in a joint statement addressed to Ramaphosa.

“Eskom is in a severe crisis,” the statement read. “Loadshedding is destroying our country. The estimated cost to our country is R4-billion per day.”

The impact of power outages is “much worse” for the poor and working class. Prolonged loadshedding is often life-threatening due to increased criminality, fires caused by the candles and paraffin stoves used during power outages, and the loss of income for small businesses forced to close because of loadshedding.

They are also demanding that the Department of Mineral Resources allows Eskom to procure wholesale diesel to decrease loadshedding; for the government, businesses and individuals to be held accountable for destroying Eskom; and to scrap the proposed electricity tariff increase, among other things.

The SA Alcohol and Policy Alliance (SAAPA) wants Ramaphosa to introduce evidence-based policies that regulate the sale of alcohol, especially to minors.

Addressing the crowd on Thursday, #UniteBehind director Zackie Achmat said, “I wish we could say we could fix Eskom. But the truth is that it’s so broken and destroyed. Today we don’t have a state of the nation, we have a state of destruction,” said Achmat.

He said Parliament has until 1 March to respond to their demands. “If they don’t … we will go to court and we will march. We will not allow the police to stop us from marching as they did today,” he said.

Bridget Nkomana from the Back2Work Campaign said they hope the president addresses social grants, particularly the R350 Social Relief of Distress grant which “is not enough to put food on the table”. Nkomana said they are calling for a Basic Income Grant of R1,500 for every unemployed person.

Aadielah Maker Diedericks, secretary-general of the SA Alcohol and Policy Alliance (SAAPA), said Ramaphosa should introduce evidence-based policies that regulate the sale of alcohol. “We saw how during Covid when they restricted the sale of alcohol how less harm there was especially in our hospital trauma centers.”

She said they also want Ramaphosa to address how the country plans to stop the sale of alcohol to minors.

Carmen Mannarino from the Masifundise Development Trust, which supports support small-scale fishing communities, said it is vital for Ramaphosa to address the energy and food crisis. “We feel that not enough is done at governmental level to support food producers to feed this country.

“Fishing communities feel there is so much emphasis on extracting oil and gas from our coastline, instead of looking at real solutions to address the energy crisis in the long term.”

“A country in crisis”

On Wednesday night, civil society groups met at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, as representatives of activist groups and the private sector discussed the “Real State of the Nation.”

In a joint statement endorsed by more than 70 organisations, the groups in attendance at St George’s Cathedral said the SONA comes as the country faces rolling blackouts, large-scale collapse of local government in various municipalities, corruption and state capture, poor economic growth, and a broken passenger rail infrastructure system.

The groups also called for the government to fix the railway system, ensure that PRASA is protected from further corruption and called for more protection for whistleblowers, among other things.

Community groups also demanded more action be taken to prevent crime and killings in rural and farming communities.