That time when the lights went out

load-shedding in South Africa

Load-shedding: the deliberate shutdown of electric power, lessening the usage at a particular time in order to prevent the failure of the entire system.

So Eskom…right? Or should we say Eishkom! Anyone who has lived in South Africa knows plenty of Eskom and load-shedding jokes. That’s because, in South Africa, load-shedding occurs every day. Schedules are distributed per area according to a grid formation; grids are allocated a two-hour load-shedding window, so, in theory, every home should be without electricity once in a day. More typically, the scheduled two hours end up being four hours, sometimes six—depending how close you’re living to an MP (there’s no load-shedding in Bedfordview, I’ve heard).

Occasionally, the schedule will do what it says and you’ll have boiled the kettle and filled the flasks to hit up that Five Roses fix later on (because there really is nothing like a cup of Five Roses); devices will be charged and supper prepared and cooked (to be eaten cold) or, in true South African style, you’ll have planned a braai or potjie around your load-shedding schedule, neither of which require electricity because they are cooked on an open flame outside.

Now that you have a sense of ‘the load-shedding life’, it would be good to think about what one might do when the electricity goes off at home in a non load-shedding scenario.—Check the lights haven’t tripped and whether the neighbours have electricity, for example? Both quite typical responses, of which I was reminded when we had a power failure at our home in Germany not too long ago. It lasted 20 minutes and oh my word; my kids’ reactions…How can there be no power? But what about the WIFI? Clearly, they’ve forgotten life in South Africa already; load-shedding a thing of folklore. Anyway, so when the power went off in our new (non load-shedding) country, we instantly went to see if the neighbours’ electricity was also off, and then I jumped onto our local community Facebook page and found out what was potting.

This was not what we did in South Africa that one time when the lights went out.

Back in our old house in Croydon (Joburg)—ironically located next to a power station; we had pre-paid electricity. How that works is: you purchase electricity at the shop or online and put a pin into the meter and shazaam! you have electricity unless, of course, there’s load-shedding or a substation has blown up or cables have been stolen. In fact, we’d become so accustomed to ad hoc load-shedding that when the power did go out sporadically, often we didn’t do the logical thing: check the trip switch and neighbours’ lights. Nope. No checking.

When the power went out in our home in Croydon-near-the-power-station that one fateful day, we just sat. Waiting. For hours. Shaking our proverbial fists and swearing (non-proverbially) at Eishkom for yet another unscheduled power cut. Six hours later…

…when night arrived and the street lights switched on and we still had no power and heard no generators kicking in; it became clear that no substation had blown up and this wasn’t load-shedding.  Our meter had run out of electricity and I had forgotten to top it up.


The joke was on us.

This time.


Author & Storyteller: Bronwyn Koch

Editor: Andrea Zanin

Bronwyn Koch lives in Germany with her husband and three kids. They both grew up in Edenvale (Johannesburg) in South Africa. She is currently learning German and navigating life in a new country, being a wife, mother and foreigner. Check out her blog: South African in Germany

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