Power cuts leave tourists stranded on Table Mountain

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of people were stranded in cable cars near the top of South Africa's Table Mountain after power cuts hit the landmark above Cape Town, illustrating the chronic energy shortages affecting Africa's strongest economy.

The national utility company, Eskom, does not have enough capacity to meet South Africa's electricity needs so it is turning off the switch for up to two hours in rolling blackouts to conserve power. Residents have been left to cope with failing traffic lights, delayed trains, hospital operation cancellations and schools closing early.

The Table Mountain electricity supply failed on Monday evening, just as two cable cars were about to dock at the top and bottom of the mountain. The 40 passengers in the lower car were forced to abseil four metres to safety through the floor. The 50 in the upper car were evacuated through the roof.

"The people in the top car were very nervous and frightened and panicky. To be stuck in a car for more than an hour is not nice," the head of the cable car company, Sabine Lehmann, said yesterday.

Engineers worked to get the cars working again, while 900 people, trapped at the summit of the 1,086m (3,566ft) mountain, waited anxiously. "They were kept warm in the restaurants. We opened the bistro so the kids were entertained in an entertainment area and we gave them drinks and things," Ms Lehmann said.

A spokeswoman for the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company said it had not been warned about the power outage. "We did not know it was going to happen," she said. "Our operations department has been in touch with Eskom to set up better procedures."

President Thabo Mbeki is due to meet Eskom executives in the next few days to discuss the situation, conscious of the knock-on effects on businesses and investors. Economists estimate the cost to the economy has run into hundreds of millions of rands already.

Meanwhile, public anger is mounting across the country over the patchy power supply and the chaos it is causing. At the weekend, outraged commuters set six trains on fire near the administrative capital, Pretoria/Tshwane, after they were delayed for two hours because of blackouts.

The wider southern Africa region is also being hit. Earlier this week, Eskom shut down power exports to neighbouring Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

If the energy shortage drags on, it would also cast a shadow over South Africa's hosting of the 2010 World Cup. Tens of thousands of football supporters will add to the demands already placed on the struggling network.

Eskom is due to recommission a number of coal-powered power stations to boost supply but warn that, if demand does not drop by 10 per cent, it may have to impose rationing.

Critics of President Mbeki are blaming his government for not allowing Eskom to raise prices to build new power stations and for not privatising the firm to create competition in the energy market. Some observers estimate that normal supply will not be resumed until 2013.

The cabinet met yesterday to discuss how to resolve the problem. A government spokesman, Themba Maseko, would only say: "The impact of load-shedding on the economy, citizens and the country's image is regretted."