by Lelety Mabasa
She makes straight for the far corner of the room which serves as the kitchen. She clatters about for nothing in particular before remembering that there is nothing to eat - she hasn't cooked for the past three days. She then resolves to take a nap. But before lying down, she flips the switch so that when ZESA finally comes through she will be able to wake up and cook some food.
Vongai stumbles into the house and fumbles as she pulls her room key from her bra. After she struggles with the lock for several minutes, the door finally creaks open. She slips into the room, trying to get accustomed to the darkness. She doesn’t bother with the switch - no need to.
Vongai wakes up with a start, a flicker of light enters her room through the window. She can hear her landlord exchanging morning greetings with the neighbors. It must be around 7am but she doesn’t know for sure because her landlord's radio, which serves as her clock, is off. She smiles wryly when she realizes that she’s been asleep for the past 12 hours. ZESA did not wake her up because for the fourth day in a row, ZESA has neglected her community. Nobody knows when the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority will finally turn the electricity back on!
Living in the dark is no longer strange for Zimbabwean town dwellers, who are no longer any different from their rural counterparts. Town dwellers have become resigned to bathing with cold water, cooking with firewood or eating food cold and even using coal irons.ZESA, the national power utility, is a government "parastatal," (a company owned or controlled partly by the government) and has been struggling to provide adequate power supplies for sometime now. Some suburbs, especially high-density suburbs like the one where Vongai lives, have gone for days without power.
"Sadly, ZESA rarely adheres to its publicized load-shedding schedules. Sometimes you experience a power outage in the middle of cooking or right in the middle of an interesting television program - it is so disheartening," says Thandiwe Nkomo, a housewife.
On the macro scale, the economy at large has also been hit hard by ZESA's erratic supply of power. Within the past month alone, wheat farmers, tobacco growers, fertilizer manufacturers, mines and the rest of the country’s industries have reported poor performance. They all face various economic challenges now so systemic within the country, but most importantly, they all cite ZESA as the major factor in their undoing; intermittent power supply is dealing them a big blow.
Already, this year's winter wheat was written off as a major disaster, with yields expected to fall well below the poor 78,000 metric tons reported last year. In fact, industry representatives have made a bold declaration that this year's yield will be the worst ever since the government's implementation of the land reform program in 2000. They blame ZESA completely for the poor crop because it did not provide enough electricity to irrigate the crops as promised. At the beginning of the winter season, ZESA imposed an outrageous load-shedding schedule which saw some suburbs going for as long as 20 hours without electricity. The parastatal pleaded with people to be tolerant as it was reprioritizing its supply in order to boost the country's depleted food reserves, claiming that the schedule was meant to ensure adequate power for the winter wheat producers. The poor harvest now means that the country must import more wheat this year - a major challenge given Zimbabwe's severe foreign currency crunch.
Hardly a week after tobacco growers announced an ambitious target of over 120 million kilograms of tobacco from 60,000 hectares of irrigated land for the forthcoming 2007/08 farming season, critics in the sector are already predicting that the target may be missed by a large margin. They warn that the quality of the tobacco seedlings has already been affected by the electricity shortage raising fears of a poor yield. Representatives from the sector say that a large proportion of tobacco growers missed planting deadlines by at least two weeks because of power cuts. Tobacco output reached its peak of 210 million kilograms in 2000 but has plummeted since the controversial land reform’s implementation, with a paltry 54 million kilograms harvested last year. The national power utility's failure to provide power to farmers has been cited several times as a central and recurring factor in the current gloom surrounding the agriculture sector.
Recently, the Chemplex Corporation, a leading mining company, announced the closing of all three of its phosphate and other fertilizer component-producing mines due to various challenges, chief among them erratic electricity supply.With the rainy season imminent, this spells disaster for Zimbabwe's beleaguered agricultural sector, traditionally the backbone of the country’s economy.
And the country's mining industry, another major contributor to national income, is also on the brink of collapse. The reason? Among other major hurdles, ZESA has stalled the industry's operations through its failure to provide adequate electricity for swift operations. While larger foreign owned entities, like Platinum miner Zimplats, have given up on ZESA and are already exploring ways of importing their own power, others are negotiating to pay the parastatal in foreign currency so it can improve its service. But unlike their big competitors, small scale miners cannot even afford the requisite Environmental Impact Assessment certificates that have been going for 5 million ZWD ($20 USD). Almost all major minerals have been on a downward trend since the beginning of the year, with gold output projected to plummet to just between six and eight tons this year, a considerable drop from last year’s 11 tons.
"We are losing a lot of production through the power cuts. Even if some companies are negotiating with foreign power suppliers, there are still problems because not every miner has access to foreign currency," says Chamber of Mines chief executive Douglas Verden.
Renco Mine, one of the major producers of gold in Zimbabwe, has already closed; inadequate power supply grossly undermined its operations.
While the Forestry Commission has bemoaned a poor timber harvest due to ZESA's failure to provide the electricity needed to power such equipment as saws, now some retailers and butcheries have expressed concern about their diminishing ability to preserve perishables.
At peak demand, especially in winter, Zimbabwe needs about 2,000 megawatts to satisfy the domestic market. Retired Brigadier General Nyambuya of the Minister of Energy and Power recently said that the national utility is currently managing to generate only about 750 megawatts.
The country supplements its electricity supplies with imports from South Africa's power utility Eskom, Mozambique's Cahora Bassa and Snel in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although ZESA likes to attribute its erratic performance to increased cases of stolen cables and oil from its generators, Nyambuya also said (in a rare case of government transparency) that the poor state of affairs is the direct result of a lack of coordinated and timely repairs to the country’s power stations' antiquated equipment, some of which is more than 50 years old.
It has also come to light that ZESA has been failing to pay its debts accrued from importing electricity, resulting in either the reduction of needed supplies or loss of its foreign suppliers. ESKOM of South Africa, for one, has now completely stopped supplying power to Zimbabwe.
Even HydroCabora Bassa of Mozambique, while it is still sending the country some power, has reduced its supply from 350MW to 150MW, according to the parastatal's Group Stakeholder Relations manager, Fullard Gwasira.
"HydroCabora Bassa has reduced its supplies due to requirements in their country. Of the 150MW - only 50MW are [guaranteed], the other 100 is [questionable] and depends mainly on the availability of supply." Gwasira confesses ruefully, "Arrears have, however, built up due to foreign currency constraints."
As with most of the country’s resources, Zimbabwe’s energy crisis is yet another symptom of a failing regime that is literally blasting this African country back into the dark ages.
About the Author
Lelety Mabasa is the pen name of a Zimbabwean journalist based in Bulawayo. She has worked for both public and private owned newspapers in the country and holds a BSC Hons in Media and Society Studies from Zimbabwe's Midlands State University.