15 February 2023
Ladysmith was plunged into darkness on Thursday, 2 February, when a substation went up in flames. The outage, lasting for nine days in some areas, sent the northern KwaZulu-Natal town’s 340,000 residents into a panic.
On Monday, Siyabonga Maphalala, spokesperson for Alfred Duma Municipality, confirmed that power was restored to all of Ladysmith, including Ward 20, but to fully repair the Jantha Road switch-house could take two months to complete. The substation needs seven more switchgear panels to be made up and installed.
According to eyewitnesses who spoke to GroundUp, it took firefighters more than two hours to extinguish the blaze. Electrical teams were on site day and night trying to fix the outage.
The entire town was initially out for four hours, but the 10,000 residents of ward 20 had the worst of it, with no power for nine days.
As to the cause of the fire, it is possible that electrical lubricant caught alight, “which will spread rapidly and burn quite hot”, an emergency responder told GroundUp.
Sara, a resident on Centenary Road, Acaciavale, a middle-income area, said power only returned in her area in the early hours of Saturday. She showed us the empty boxes of frozen food she had to dispose of because it perished during the outage. Water supply was also disrupted and she had to collect water in buckets for bathing and cleaning.
“We were living like it was the 1950s,” she said. “Making a fire outside to cook and boil water. There wasn’t even gas we could buy. Everything was sold out. My sons wanted to get generators from Durban. In fact, that’s what many people ended up doing, because there was no stock here.”
In neighbouring Ndomba it is the norm for people to use candles and outside fires, yet they too were affected by the outage, having to share candles and paraffin because the shelves in the town were empty as other people, now also without power, bought up supplies.
Residents give credit to two senior officials for rescuing the town. They did not wish to be named or interviewed.
“He’s always been a supporter [of] this town. A good old fashioned hard worker,” said Paddy-Anne, owner of the Durnford Lodge, of one of the officials.
Ward 20 Councillor Abbas Warasally (IFP), who is presently on crutches after he stepped on debris and slipped at the Jantha Road switch-house site, said, “After calling every supplier in the books, a company in Pretoria was found and two very senior members of the [electricity] department physically went there to inspect and test the goods. Then, they came back to Ladysmith and we had the parts delivered here a day after that.”
Ladysmith is unused to power outages. Several residents and smaller businesses confirmed this saying the town does not suffer scheduled blackouts. As far as we could establish, the industrial areas carry the burden alone.
The unexpected nature of the blackout was part of the reason why panic buying took place and why residents were so ill-prepared.