‘Load-limiting’ is tyranny masquerading as convenience in South Africa

Open-Ed 

  • Outsourcing responsibility to the state is usually convenient, but often results in some kind of perversity.
  • The domain of electricity is no exception, now that South African electricity consumers will be forced to sacrifice self-determination and privacy for convenience. 

The suburb of Fourways, Johannesburg, where I live, has for several months hosted the ‘pilot programme’ of Eskom’s ‘load-limiting’ initiative. Eskom recently announced that this programme has been a success, and that load-limiting will progressively be extended across the country.

What is load-limiting?

Simply – and only in theory – load-limiting amounts to this:

During stages 1 to 4 of loadshedding, those covered by load-limiting do not get their power cut. Instead, an electricity consumption threshold kicks in.

Load-limiting precludes the use of power-hungry appliances like geysers, inverters, microwaves, kettles, and sometimes even fridges and freezers. But it allows lights, televisions, wi-fi routers, and other appliances that consume less power to remain on.

If the municipality or Eskom detects – via new ‘smart meters’ being rolled out countrywide – that a household has hit the threshold, that household’s power gets cut.

Having been alerted, the household can then reduce its consumption by switching off high-consumption appliances.

10 seconds later, the power comes back on.

If the household has not reduced its consumption, the power-on/power-off process repeats a few times before the power is cut entirely for about 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, the process repeats: the power comes on, and if the household is using too much, it goes off, and comes back on 10 seconds later for several rounds.

This whole rigmarole repeats every 30 minutes for the entire duration of the loadshedding period.

If you are not at home during loadshedding hours, rest assured that your appliances are being tested to their limits by being constantly put on and off by your helpful local municipal civil servants or Eskom officials

My FMF colleague, Zakhele Mthembu, and I holding placards reading, ‘Load-limiting sets an unacceptable precedent’.

That is load-limiting in theory.

Load-limiting in reality is that even when Eskom has, to much celebration and jubilation, ‘suspended loadshedding’, load-limiting often still kicks in. While the rest of the country has undisturbed use of their appliances, those suffering under load-limiting still have to limit consumption.

This, one Fourwaysian has said in defence of load-limiting, is just a ‘software glitch’. Uh-huh. To me, it seems like a clear breach of self-determination and privacy.

The convenience of tyranny

Taking responsibility is difficult. But responsibility is a precondition for liberty. Sans responsibility, liberty amounts only to fleeting ‘fun’ that comes to a crashing stop when those we have handed our responsibility to – the state – decide whimsically that it is time to stop. It is only when we own responsibility that decisions about our liberty reside with us.

Offloading responsibility, usually to the state, is convenient, because then whatever we are offloading is no longer ‘our problem’ to maintain. Furthermore, the indisputable benefits of centralisation and the economies of scale it offers adds to the convenience.

Tired of paying every time you use a transportation service? Well, look no further than this handy Department of Transport card that you can use freely for all forms of public transport. Whatever you owe is simply added to your monthly PAYE income tax deduction. How convenient!

But with the offloading of responsibility and the embracing of convenience comes the possibility – perhaps even the inevitability – of tyranny.

The tyranny hidden in the Department of Transport’s hypothetical proposal (which, thankfully, an ANC government would never be able to implement) is that when the political élite decides to unperson you – maybe you insulted the supreme leader, maybe you are deemed a bigot, maybe you did not wear a mask when told to – your handy Transport card can be suspended or even revoked, taking your access to public transport away entirely.

This is similar to the logic on which the Chinese social credit system operates, and that system offers the exact same conveniences to the Chinese public.

What makes load-limiting in particular problematic?

In the libertarian subculture of the liberal movement, it is trite that the state manufactures crises to which it positions itself as the solution. One thinks, for example, of the widespread poverty and inequality the government has created in South Africa. The government then uses this poverty and inequality to motivate further power-grabs – like affirmative action, Blatant Elite Enrichment (BEE), or economic regulation – that it will use to ‘solve’ those problems.

Loadshedding and load-limiting are the exact same phenomenon.

Load-limiting comes after the South African public has been hugely demoralised by the government’s loadshedding programme.

Government created the inconvenience that we are suffering, and now positions itself as ‘offering’ us the convenience back if we simply give up our self-determination and privacy over how much electricity we use.

That government ‘created’ loadshedding might appear like a jarring statement to make, but it is unquestionably the case.

The normal response to any shortage of goods or services is an increase in the price of the good or service. Shortages are nothing new, and the economy has always known how to deal with them.

Loadshedding is a politically contrived form of rationing based on the ANC’s nonsensical socialist (it would say ‘social solidarity’) ideology that demands that if there is to be suffering, everyone but the political élite must suffer equally.

The appropriate way to have dealt with the lack of power supply in South Africa would have been for the price of electricity to rise in a competitive market. This, in turn, would not have been entirely possible, because South Africa has an artificial electricity monopoly in the form of Eskom, meaning that it has no competitors. And without competitors, the only incentive is to raise and never lower prices.

Eskom’s monopoly, too, was politically contrived. Thus, to come to the appropriate economic response of raising prices, Eskom should first have been subjected to open market competition.

None of this happened. It is only now, two decades after loadshedding began, that Eskom is starting to be forced to compete with the private sector – something the government, I fear, will not long tolerate – and still the price of electricity is not subject to market determination.

Government created and maintained this artificial crisis, and now seeks to convince us – and it seems to be convincing most people, given the positive reception of load-limiting in Fourways – that it is the solution to the crisis.

But load-limiting is even more insidious than that.

Political victimisation

Load-limiting will (and in my area, already does) allow municipalities and Eskom to target specific households.

Before the installation of ‘smart meters’, municipalities or Eskom were forced to either punish whole neighbourhoods, or go through the slog of driving to a specific property and disconnecting it. Both these approaches are politically and economically costly. Loadshedding has already harmed the ANC in the polls, and South Africa’s underworked and overpaid civil service would not want to go through the effort of physically disconnecting those they wish to target.

Load-limiting, then, is not only ostensibly convenient to electricity consumers, but also to Eskom and municipalities, which can now switch off households from air-conditioned control rooms. Load-limiting will make blackouts costless for Eskom and municipalities, when it is something that must be very costly for them to implement.

If loadshedding comes to an end, South Africans should have no reason to suppose that load-limiting will also come to an end. The smart meters will not be uninstalled when that happens. It is easily conceivable that as the developed world continues to force the developing world to leave stable sources of energy like fossil fuels behind, our all-to-obliging government (ANC or otherwise) will use load-limiting to control general demand for electricity in the future.

And it goes without saying that as South African politics gets increasingly heated, and government perhaps increasingly malicious, political victimisation of households or even businesses cannot be entirely ruled out.

The only real solution I can see at this point is that the installation of smart meters should be resisted for as long as possible, but ultimately, South Africans should go off-grid as far as they can afford to.

An artificial ‘crisis’

South Africans need to stop debating the electricity crisis. It is an artificial problem brought into being by political considerations exclusively.

The solutions are glaring: demonopolise Eskom, decentralise the grid and allow the construction of independent grids, and allow electricity generators to utilise any energy source and charge market prices for their product.

That we are now forced to debate whether or not to embrace load-limiting, a perverse shoot-off of the already perverse loadshedding, is a premise none of us should accept.

Author: Martin van Staden

Martin is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation.

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