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‘Many instruments are not going to make it’

Image: Edwin Madala


South Africa’s power crisis could push science out of country’s poorly resourced institutions, biochemist warns

The rolling blackouts crippling South Africa’s electricity grid are wreaking havoc at labs around the country—not least at ‘previously disadvantaged’ universities, which battled with resources for research even before the current energy crisis hit.

“My mass spectrometers don’t have on and off buttons. They are not meant to be turned off during their lifetime,” says Edwin Madala, a biochemist who has spent the last few years building a world-class spectrometry lab at the University of Venda in the Limpopo province.

However, in 2022 alone, one of his instruments went off more than ten times due to power outages.

South Africa’s university landscape is deeply divided, with a handful of universities performing the lion’s share of the country’s academic research, while the others—which historically catered to non-white South Africans and were not set up for research—have struggled to catch up.

Over the past two decades, the South African government has been working to build research capacity in these left-behind institutions, but the country’s power crisis threatens to undo the progress made so far.

At Madala’s lab, diesel generators normally take over when power is switched off for ‘loadshedding’—a rolling blackout system designed to keep the integrity of the grid when national electricity demand exceeds supply. In the gap between the grid goes down and the generators kick in, Uninterrupted Power Supply units are meant to supply seamless power.

However, with blackouts reaching 10 hours per day in recent months, the backup systems are failing, says Madala. The generators run out of diesel, and the UPS systems are left to power what they can, for as long as they can, during two-to-four-hour loadshedding blocks. This is running down their batteries quickly, meaning they cannot function properly.

As a result, there’s a real threat to equipment in the University of Venda’s science building, which Madala currently values at around R60 million (US$3.5m). He does not run his spectrometers at the moment. While he knows of colleagues at other universities who are running theirs, he says that poses a great risk. “Many instruments are not going to make it.”

His is not the only faltering lab on Venda’s campus. Madala says his colleagues in biology have come into campus only to find their -80 degree freezers off, with irreplaceable samples thawing inside. “People’s research careers are melting in front of their eyes,” he says.

The way things are, Madala says he is considering moving his research to a better-resourced university if the situation does not improve. At Venda, diesel is being burnt to power residences and lifts, while essential research equipment is left to languish.

“These disadvantaged institutions are not research-oriented, so when you say that ‘we must prioritise diesel for equipment’, you are speaking a foreign language,” he says. “I’m tired of fighting this diesel war.”