Even hope switches off in South Africa

The writer reminisces on the days when hope was palpable in South Africa as rolling blackouts are in today's Mzansi.


I call my mum, and she apologises for talking about load shedding again. “You must be so bored of it,” she says. She never makes jokes about “sheds being loaded” anymore; she rarely says “we’re counting our blessings”.

Those blessings seem fewer every day. On the video call she sits in the dark, in her dressing-gown, in the middle of a 6pm to 10pm blackout, and her smile is forced. My little sister appears, waving. They’ve been playing cards by rechargeable light. She’s winning, woohoo! My mum is 81, my little sister is 49 and has Down Syndrome.

A sad state

They should not be living like this, in the dark in winter, with huge water insecurity because when the power goes the water often disappears too. No-one should. Oh, my beloved South Africa, we were doing so well.

Remember the RDP houses mushrooming in the late ’90s, the wires stretching across the little box homes in a web of electrification? Remember the waterheating panels on the rooftops? The hope? Oh man, remember the hope … I was thinking about these things on a morning stroll today with the dog. I was still in my PJs but, as we’re on holiday in a rather remote cottage in southwest Ireland, there were only goats to see me.

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Missing home

It’s summertime, beautiful and green, the water in the bay-mirro-still, the birdsong vibrant, and I felt the way I haven’t felt since … when?

Since I was last in South Africa, at my house in the Western Cape, walking the dewy garden barefoot, hearing the morning chorus. The only difference is there’s no fear of snakes, and the birdsong in Ireland is mostly seasonal – as is the sunshine. Also, when I get back to the cottage I know I can make myself a cup of tea at the flick of a switch. I know I can shower when I want to.

That’s different too. That’s why my mum and sister are coming to stay for three months: to over-winter and recuperate from constant anxiety. That’s why it seems more and more South Africans are leaving now, a third wave of mass emigration. The first was the chicken run, the second was the when-wes (“when we were in South Africa”), now it’s those who are simply tired out. And these ones I cannot judge.

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