With South Africa enduring daily power outages of up to 10 hours, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a nationwide “state of disaster” on Thursday to address an electricity crisis so dire that day-old chicks are freezing to death, supermarket owners are rushing to sell meat before it spoils and many businesses have been forced to shut down.
The blackouts, caused by an aging fleet of coal-fired power stations that the dysfunctional state power company, Eskom, is struggling to keep online, have been a part of life in South Africa for nearly 16 years. But the past several months have been the darkest yet.
Last year, there were more than 200 days of rolling outages, the most on record.
“We are therefore declaring a national state of disaster to respond to the electricity crisis and its effect,” Mr. Ramaphosa announced in his state-of-the-nation speech. “The people of South Africa want action; they want solutions.”
From large industries to mom-and-pop stores, many businesses have closed or laid off workers in a country where one in three people is already jobless. With the outages driving up the cost of doing business, prices for everyday goods have shot up, as has the frustration of a populace losing faith in the government’s ability to guarantee its future.
The blackouts have consumed the president and his party, the African National Congress, which had promised to reinvigorate South Africa’s collapsing economy.
Political opponents and civic organizations have staged large street protests and dragged the government to court for failing to uphold its constitutional mandate as the outages have interrupted trade, education and health care.
Despite the dramatic “disaster” declaration, effective immediately, Mr. Ramaphosa did not offer any new plan to end the crisis. He said that he was appointing a minister of electricity, and that the declaration would allow the government to accelerate power projects and exempt food producers and other critical industries from power cuts.
For all the political bluster, the crisis plays out in life’s most mundane rituals, in places like Meyerton, a town 34 miles southwest of Johannesburg surrounded by farms and factories.
At Foodzone, a corner supermarket just off the main road, when the clock struck noon on a recent day, the music stopped abruptly, the refrigerators stopped humming and the fluorescent lights went dark.
“Oh, see, there it goes,” said Karina da Silva, the store’s co-owner.
It was the second power outage of the day, and the refrigerators were as warm as a cupboard. Ms. da Silva and her husband, Eddie da Silva, rifled through packs of sausages, chicken and burger patties, checking their expiration dates. Mr. da Silva fired up a generator to keep the cash registers going, and the supermarket’s cooks fried up the thawing meat on a gas burner to sell at a discount to customers whose stoves at home would be useless during the outage. The store has taken most of its egg dishes off the menu.
“You don’t want a rotten egg in your store,” said Mr. da Silva, tapping his nose.
Laying off their already lean staff of 14 would make running the store impossible, and the da Silvas are not sure how they will survive.
“I don’t think things are going to change for us; it’s not going to get better,” Ms. da Silva said.
Since 2007, power outages have become so common that Eskom, the national electricity supplier, has devised a schedule to cut the power to different neighborhoods at different times. It calls these periods of national frustration “loadshedding.”
Eskom’s troubles are the result of a century of poor management, experts on energy and economics said in interviews. During apartheid, the utility, which mostly supplied the country’s white minority, subsidized the cost of electricity for big industries like mining, meaning that many lucrative companies did not pay their fair share.
That legacy of low tariffs continues to hamper Eskom’s ability to cover basic costs like maintenance, said Jesse Burton, a researcher in the Energy Systems Research Group at the University of Cape Town.
When the A.N.C. came to power in 1994, it failed to expand the utility at a time when the fleet began to buckle under growing demand and shrinking revenue. Corruption and incompetence in the construction of new power plants only made things worse. Mismanagement in successive presidential administrations hobbled Eskom until it collapsed.
“It’s institutional failure at every level,” said Ms. Burton. “They’re in a debt spiral, and they’re in a maintenance spiral.”
Since taking office five years ago, Mr. Ramaphosa created a broad-reaching strategy to save Eskom. It included a plan to fix existing power stations, introduce renewable energy and allow private companies to produce power.
But the plan has produced few visible results. Those charged with solving the problem are bitterly divided. Gwede Mantashe, South Africa’s energy minister and one of Mr. Ramaphosa’s top lieutenants in the A.N.C., accused Andre de Ruyter, the chief executive of Eskom, in December of trying to undermine the A.N.C.-led government.
Mr. de Ruyter, tapped by Mr. Ramaphosa to save Eskom, quit a week later. He said in an interview with The Financial Times that someone had tried to assassinate him by lacing his coffee with cyanide. Eskom declined to comment on the allegation, and Mr. de Ruyter did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The fatal flaw in Mr. Ramaphosa’s effort to rescue Eskom is that he has tried to do too many things at once, said Khaya Sithole, an economic analyst in Johannesburg. His plan, like those of previous administrations, failed to focus on the fundamental challenge: maintenance.
“Maintenance does not amount to a new project, so if it’s not a new project, you’re not going to have a P.R. exercise where you’re cutting a ribbon,” Mr. Sithole said.
Analysts say that solving the energy crisis would require bold measures, like going into debt or putting in place a tiered tariff system in which the poor are subsidized while big companies pay more.
“The people who will suffer most acutely from all of these problems are the poor and the marginalized, and that’s where the seeds of a social revolution are going to be planted,” said Mr. Sithole.
The power crisis has created some winners, though. During outages, copper thieves have ripped out wiring to sell, leaving neighborhoods without power for days. In Meyerton, a general supply store is trying to capitalize on the need for alternative energy sources by selling solar panels alongside dog food and laundry detergent.
Still, there is mostly suffering.
The prolonged power outages are threatening the food supply. The South African Poultry Association and other agricultural groups lobbied the government to exempt them from loadshedding, said Izaak Breitenbach, head of the association.
In December, KFC announced that it was temporarily closing some of its stores because of a chicken shortage. The price of chicken in stores has increased, along with eggs and other food. Public attention turned to farms when images of hundreds of dead birds began to circulate in the local news and on social media.
With heaters going out during power cuts, some chicks are freezing.
On a small farm outside Meyerton recently, Dawit Goji picked up two lifeless chicks in a pen inside a concrete building, shooing away the hundreds that were chirping around them. The power had gone out early that morning, and a crush of chicks stampeded into a corner of the building in an effort to stay warm.
Mr. Goji, who is farming chickens for the first time this year, bent over a chick lying on its side.
“He’s about to go,” Mr. Goji said, stroking the chick.
John Eligon contributed reporting from Johannesburg.