South Africa’s gendered electricity crisis


For the past 16 years, South Africa has been grappling with a severe energy crisis marked by frequent and prolonged power outages, some lasting up to 15 hours a day. In February, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national “state of disaster” and announced a financial rescue package for the state-owned electricity company, Eskom. However, the failure to maintain a stable power supply has had a significant negative impact on the daily lives of South Africans, particularly women and girls.

These recurring nationwide power outages, euphemistically referred to as “load shedding”, have plagued South Africa since 2007. Considering that most South African households rely heavily on state-provided electricity (as of 2021, 77.7 percent of households primarily used electricity for cooking), this crisis has hit homemakers particularly hard.

Load shedding is implemented in multiple stages, with each stage indicating the removal of an additional 1,000 megawatts of electricity from the grid.

The first stage involves “three two-hour power outages over four days or three four-hour power outages over eight days,” while the sixth stage may result in consumers being affected 18 times over four days for up to four-and-a-half hours at a time or 18 times over eight days for about two hours at a time.

In addition to denying South African women access to essential infrastructure, the electricity crisis has compromised their safety. Recurring blackouts have facilitated criminal activities such as cable theft, which exacerbates power outages, and has led to increased incidents of crime in homes and neighborhoods. With streets and houses left unlit and home security systems rendered ineffective, burglaries, car thefts, and robberies have surged. In March, a 27-year-old veterinarian was tragically murdered outside his Cape Town home by criminals tampering with his car during a load-shedding episode.

While law enforcement authorities in South Africa claim that distress calls related to load shedding have not increased significantly, numerous reports of sexual violence against women and children paint a different picture. In one particularly horrific case, a two-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by her uncle during a power outage. Given that women are already vulnerable in public spaces, the electricity crisis has severely limited their mobility both outside and inside their homes.

Technological advances over the past century, such as washing machines, have transformed women’s lives, freeing them from time-consuming household chores and enabling their participation in the workforce. However, even with some traditional services now provided by the state, women and girls often find themselves filling gaps where public services are lacking.

They often take on the responsibility of caring for sick family members who lack proper access to healthcare. Similarly, when a household lacks amenities like running water or electricity, women bear a disproportionate burden.

By hindering women’s ability to use time-saving appliances like ovens, microwaves, and washing machines for basic household chores, the electricity crisis has negatively impacted young girls’ school performance and limited women’s employment opportunities. This threatens to erase decades of economic and social progress.

Moreover, the load shedding crisis serves as a reminder of women’s invaluable economic and social contributions. Despite the government’s persistent failure to provide basic public services, South African women and girls continue to provide sustenance and care, often overlooked and unpaid.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the load shedding crisis exacerbates South Africa’s existing gender and racial inequalities. Such crises not only reverse the progress made by women during more prosperous times but also diminish their ability to recover by forcing them out of the labor market and hindering their education.

For those who can afford it, there are ways to mitigate this crisis, such as going off the grid or purchasing prepared meals and laundry services. However, these options require significant initial investments and are inaccessible to many low-income households. Households without access to these alternatives are left without viable solutions, exacerbating existing inequalities.

To ensure equitable outcomes, South African policymakers must ensure that reliable and sustainable electricity is accessible to everyone. Adopting a more equitable load shedding strategy that takes socioeconomic factors into account is essential. For instance, the state-owned monopoly could reduce power outages in poorer neighborhoods.

The ongoing electricity crisis highlights the rampant corruption and inefficiency in South Africa today. Unless the government adopts a fairer approach to electricity conservation, the well-being of women will continue to be disproportionately affected, exposing the discriminatory and misogynistic flaws in the country’s inadequate public services.


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