Open Arms of Minnesota

Rolling Black-Outs

Before traveling to South Africa on this most recent trip I had read about the electricity shortage that is affecting the country. To compensate for the shortage, the government has implemented a plan for rolling black-outs when entire areas will be without power for a few hours at a time. The other day, Sea Point, the neighborhood in Cape Town where I stay, was without electricity. The power cut didn’t interfere with my activities that day as I was in the townships.

Really, the only inconvenience I have experienced during these black-outs is when the traffic signals (or robots as they are called in South Africa) have been out. In some ways, drivers are more cautious and courteous when the signals aren’t working then when they are operational. For the most part, everyone takes their turn stopping and going rather than speeding through yellow or red signals.

When Sea Point was in a rolling black out, I was in the township of Khayelitsha meeting with Eunice Mlotywa. Eunice is one of the ambassadors for Monkeybiz, the non-profit organization that uses beads to create beautiful works of art for its customers and jobs for people in the townships. Eunice is an accomplished beader who oversees other beaders in Khayelitsha. She also represents Monkeybiz around the world, and Open Arms brought Eunice to the Twin Cities to be with us for our World AIDS Day beaded art sale last December. Having never visited Eunice in her home before, I promised to do so on this trip.

In addition to the beading that Eunice and the others do for Monkeybiz, Eunice started a woman’s empowerment project called Iliwa Laphakade (Xhosa for “eternal pillar). Iliwa Laphakade is a sewing project that employs township women who mostly make track suits and uniforms for school children. A number of women were busy at their sewing machines when we arrived at Eunice’s home. Eunice was showing us the projects that were being worked on when suddenly every sewing machine in the room went silent. Eunice smiled and threw her hands up in the air. The rolling black-out had hit Khayelitsha. Which meant that work for these women had ended for the day and, of course, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

When I read about the electricity shortage in South Africa, I wondered about the competency of the government that had allowed this situation to develop. Can you imagine the uproar that would occur in this country if the U.S. experienced intentional, massive electrical shortages on a consistent basis?

I also thought about the macro economic ramifications that the shortages are creating in South Africa. Certainly, this is bad for business in general and very bad for tourism which is a major economic driver in cities like Cape Town. I mean, how long will tourists put up with no air conditioning, television, or dining out? I didn’t think, however, about the micro economic implications that something like rolling black-outs cause for people like Eunice’s sewers until I experienced a black-out in Khayelitsha, and I saw the women get up from their sewing machines and leave their work.

Back in my hotel that night, with electricity restored, I watched BBC News in my air conditioned room. Just like Sea Point, electricity was back in Khayelitsha, but the women who sew at Iliwa Laphakade will never recoup the money they failed to earn that day. And, the rolling black-outs will continue into the future causing frustration at robots, discomfort for tourists, and lost wages for poor people.

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