Stu­dent life in the shad­ow of ‘load shed­ding’ and the light of ubun­tu

Since 2007, South Africa has frequently seen planned electrical power shutdowns, known as ‘load shedding’. Here, I’ll share what it means to be cut off from the Internet – and how helpful the African ubuntu concept is.

Open books with a flashlight.
Studying in the light of a modern candle. Photo: private

This semester is not my first in South Africa. I’ve been here as an exchange student before and was sure that I’m well prepared for the challenges that could, potentially, come up during my stay at the University of Pretoria (UP). I had heard about electricity shortages, as my South African friends had complained about them in their social media statuses. I didn’t, however, expect this to occur all that much. Oh my, was I wrong…

Out of battery

On my first day in Pretoria, load shedding hit me hard, already. Excited to take a shower after an overnight flight from Europe, I plugged in my phone for charging right after I reached my student residence, and went to the bathroom. How surprised was I when I returned to my room and noticed that the battery was still at five percent. “Oh! The adapter doesn’t work,” was my first thought (whenever you’re in SA, friend, remember to take an adapter with you – the plugs here are different from those in Germany). I soon realised, though, that the issue had nothing to do with the adapter.

At the residence administration office I was informed that I could not get a campus map as “there is load shedding and printer doesn’t work”. Shame, as the map was nowhere to be found online and I needed to get to the International Office pretty urgently to fix the needed formalities. I couldn’t rely on my phone, as the battery was about to be dead any minute (I hadn’t thought of buying a power bank prior to my departure for SA – of course). The residence manager was very nice, though, and described the way to the main campus. The guards there were supposed to direct me further.

Let me drop a short word of explanation here: the UP campus works differently than most of the HU facilities, which can be accessed freely. In order to get on the UP campus, one needs to hold a student card which is issued only after registration. The card needs to be presented at the campus gate every time one would like to enter. The card is also needed in order to enter UP student accommodation. That is why it was so crucial for me to complete the formalities and receive a student card already on day one.

Ubuntu in action

Once I got to the campus gate, I asked the guards for the directions to the International Office. They did not know. The guards directed me to one of the undergraduate student residences and recommended to look for further information there. And here we come to the African concept of ubuntu. Ubuntu, a Nguni term meaning ‘humanity’, can be explained as a philosophy based on the statement “I am because we are”. In practice, it refers to behaviour that benefits the community. That very first day in Pretoria as an exchange student, I got a chance to experience a practical implementation of ubuntu - more than once.

In the undergrad student res which the guards had directed me to, I asked a group of three students for the way to the International Office. They didn’t know, so I thanked them and turned to look for someone else to ask. But one of the students asked me to wait. She called a person who happened to work for the university administration and passed the phone to me. The person I spoke to over the phone explained to me, step by step, what should I do in order to register and receive the student card. I thanked them and gave the phone back to its owner. As the three students heard that it was my first day at the UP, they walked with me to the International Office. They also gave me their phone numbers and encouraged to contact them in case I need any help.

Once I had made it from the International Office to the Registration Office, I needed to provide additional information which I could get access to through my student account. It wouldn’t have been a problem at all, if only my phone hadn’t died a few minutes earlier. That was my true moment of despair – I was sure that that was it for the day. But then, a person from the Registration Office offered me her private laptop to access my student account and submit the requested information. Within the next half an hour I was registered and queuing for my brand-new student card. Load shedding, this time it’s 1:0 for me.

A change in attitude

Nevertheless, the next few days in SA were marked by my constant frustration about the load shedding happening three times a day, every day (no exception!), and lasting for a minimum of two hours each time (one day, it was four hours each time, so 12 hours in total...). Let me just explain that when there is no electricity, it’s not only that there is no WiFi, but also no option to cook, make a cup of tea, or turn on the light, as the student residence where the UP accommodates exchange students doesn’t have a generator. I have started to work around it and plan accordingly. As they say: “if you can’t change the situation, change the way you think about it.” You can read more about my coping strategies in my next blog entry, coming soon!

(Published 17 April 2023)