by Anthony Egan SJ

You’ve heard the story of the Devil’s visit to Johannesburg during yet another power cut. He knocks on a couple’s door. The husband, stumbling through the dark, asks “Who’s there?”

“The Prince of Darkness.”

“How dare you show your face around here, you *@#$%%^!”

Shocked, the Devil flees. The husband gropes his way back to the candle-lit lounge. His wife looks up.

“Who was it?”

“Oh, just another fool from ESKOM. Probably here with more empty excuses,” he replies.

Humour, as often is the case, expresses felt reality: public outrage and disgust at a situation that – in this case quite literally – leaves one powerless.

The situation is very bad. As the frequency and duration of outages lengthens, the human and financial costs rise. Work productivity slides – unless you can afford generators. But generators are expensive and must be factored into the cost of goods and services. Small businesses go bankrupt. Education and public services are disrupted. Medical care outside big facilities with generators are disrupted. And individuals living outside such institutions on life supports like oxygen tanks run the real risk of dying.

All of this goes against the first fundamental principle of Catholic Social Teaching: the Common Good.

Now, it is true that given the pathetic status of our power grid blackouts are necessary. Without them the grid would go down completely. Paradoxically the unsung heroes of this crisis are the ESKOM engineers who are trying to stop the greater catastrophe, South Africa returning – literally – to a new Dark Age.

One cannot say the same about their incompetent bosses who failed to foresee the need for more power stations, a more diversified power supply system, and a bigger and better national grid. And especially those among them who misused their office to steal billions from the public, billions which we the public are going to have to fork out to repair the damage.

It’s unethical to shoot people for stupidity, much as it might satisfy one’s rage: on a practical level we might run out of bullets – and, let’s be honest, perhaps put ourselves at risk! In fact we cannot do this to the corrupt either, in a state without capital punishment. So if we can’t resort, as some states do, to the bullet or the lethal injection, what should we do?

The very least the State can do is put the crooks behind bars for a long, long time. In unlit prison cells, perhaps, to save electricity. Until they pay back the money they’ve stolen. Every cent. (Readers may pick up here a suitably Biblical reference).

Will the State do this? I’m not holding my breath. Most of these crooks are well-placed with the government, with Parliament. And if some electoral lists are to be taken at face value, corruption is not considered an obstacle to office.

Perhaps it is time that voters suffering from this debacle made it clear to government that unless something is done in this regard now, come May 8th South Africa may see another kind of power outage, ‘of a special type’ one might even say.