Kimani Chege
Kimani Chege

Let there be light, and there was none in SA

Some years back in Kenya, a major catastrophe hit us. El Niño — the climate catastrophe that happens when the Pacific Ocean around the equator heats up by just a fraction of a degree — had just ravaged Kenya badly, with floods that destroyed crops, roads, homes and lives.

When it was done with us, as so often happens, its drier cousin La Niña — when half-a-degree colder temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean send our atmosphere on the other curve of the equator out of whack — decided to visit us. The two are not very good guests, as they torment their hosts.

It was during that time, early 2000, when I came across a South African newspaper. What caught my attention was an article that ridiculed how Kenya had been hurt by La Niña.

I vividly remember the headline as if it was today’s. “And God said, let there be light, and there was light everywhere apart from Kenya,” screamed the headline. The water levels in reservoirs such as Masinga and Kindaruma had gone lower than ever witnessed in the country’s history. Our five hydropower production plants were dry — and often silent.

Power rationing became the norm. Every serious business person in Kenya had to invest in diesel power generators imported from South Africa. Business boomed for South Africans. A shame it was to see the whole of Kenya engulfed in darkness.

While the power shortage was as a result of natural occurrences, Kenyans were quick to castigate their government and the principal at the time, our second president, Daniel arap Moi — a parallel to Mbeki. Pointing fingers echoed one thing: you failed to plan.

The water reservoirs in the Seven Forks Scheme, among others, had silted following year-long floods. El Niño was so intense that the wall of water broke some dams and rivers were left to run wild. The negligence came when the engineers at the Kenya Power and Lighting Company forgot to de-silt the dams.

That could have elicited the ridicule Kenya got from the South African newspaper: failing to plan. I cursed my country for our lack of vision, letting the whole country drift into darkness. I wished we were like South Africa.

How fast this world changes. In less than a decade, South Africa is in a similar position. I don’t know everything about what caused your deteriorating power crisis. However, I don’t think it is due to excellent planning!

From job cuts to gold prices and the ever-increasing worry of an economic slump, South Africa’s position appears to be worse than Kenya’s.

And just like Kenya’s good old Daniel arap Moi, now officially retired after being blocked from running in the 2002 elections, South Africa’s African National Congress government was caught napping, prioritising damage control over boring things like good management.

I am sure while attending ANC campaigns, somebody forgot to check on the coal-mining needs of a growing economy in a dry region. When comrade Jacob Zuma faced ”framed-up” charges of fraud, somebody else forgot to check the maintenance needs of the Cahora Bassa dam in Mozambique, and so on. Now you face your lowest investor confidence in some time.

However, South Africa seems so nice at resolving a crisis. I bet if this were Kenya, the power crisis would have dragged on painfully for months. Kudos! At least you may beat us at that — although power cuts for a decade seems truly extreme in countries with such potential for solar power. Are we talking of a dark 2010 Football World Cup? Many of us plan to travel south for these games, but nobody wants to watch a football match in total darkness, hapana! (Swahili for “no”.)

Meanwhile, I have some advice for my brothers and sisters in South Africa. Please, the next time you ridicule Kenya, start counting the years. The same fate will befall you. I am not a soothsayer, but we live in a very unpredictable world. Kenya laughed at Rwanda when killing was a pet subject of the people of that country in 1994. Years down the line, Kenya is in the same position, with machetes as the weapon of choice in both cases.

To make matters worse, I have seen some ugly headlines coming from the south on the Kenyan situation. What goes around comes around.

For example, La Niña is back in Africa, overstaying her welcome. And we probably won’t get rid of her until halfway through the year.