Fuel Shortage in Joburg

Empty gas bottles

This post will be a rather long-winded way to give you yet another expat tip. One thing about living in Johannesburg that I find very curious, if not irritating, is that every winter there is a shortage of just about everything you need to stay warm. I should have seen this coming when the frost sheeting for the plants – for Pete’s sake – was sold out early on. Then it was the beanie hats for school at McCullagh & Bothwell. Now it is propane gas.

Remember how I raved about my little gas heater for the kitchen? Well – it won’t run without gas, will it? I was lucky in that our bottle ran empty early enough so that I could get a ┬ánew one when they still had them. Little did I know I should have bought about ten of them to have extras and to supply desperate friends. By now, you won’t find any gas anywhere in Joburg. If someone does, please let me know!

Unfortunately in the meantime our big 48kg gas bottle supplying the one central fireplace has also run out. We have a spare, but it is on the other side of the house by the kitchen, waiting for the one there to be finished. I’m reluctant to haul it over to the fireplace side, just to have to haul it back when I need it again for cooking. And who knows how long this shortage will last?

I don’t get it. Every year, very predictably, it gets very cold in Joburg during June and July, the winter months. The days are sunny and warm, but at night the temperature drops to below freezing. I’m sure this has been the pattern, more or less, since gold was discovered on the Rand, and before. So why do we have to run out of gas halfway through every winter? And how hard can it be to get more in? I’ve been on the waiting list of Easy Gas for over three weeks, and still no gas. Where are they getting it from? By boat from Alaska?

So people here have to make plans. They have to pick between cooking and being warm, not both. Or they have to go back to their underfloor heating, which as I’ve said is expensive and inefficient. Plus if everybody turned it on, there would be power outages as a result, because South Africa is still seriously underpowered. In the end, what everybody I know seems to be doing is going to bed very early and huddling under the blankets until the sun comes up again.

It’s one thing to be freezing, but there are other implications as well. Noisette tells me that his plant is at risk of running out of welding gases. Just one more thing to add to the neverending list of hazards at his job, like fires breaking out, snakes scaring away the workers, and the latest, violent strikes.

Speaking of strikes, they’ve resulted in yet another vital supply to run dry: Petrol, as they call it here, or gasoline. I was warned a few days ago that this might happen and rushed to the nearest gas station, where the attendants waved me off and turned up their hands. No petrol there. Luckily I found some Diesel on my next try, which should get me through the next three weeks with such a big tank. I’m already changing my plans to avoid or at least combine any bigger errands in the coming weeks, to conserve my precious petrol. To think that my car was the one place I could count on being warm with my house so cold!

Luckily my friend the sun is still faithfully shining every day.

I suppose conservation is a positive effect of all this. And since there is nothing I can do to magically make gas bottles appear, I might as well be philosophical about it. Living in South Africa as an expat has opened my eyes to how spoiled but also wasteful Americans are. There is an abundance of everything, and I mean EVERYTHING to be had in America, at all hours of the day, at a great price and with good service. If you don’t like something, you can always, ALWAYS change your mind and return it. But Americans are also, by far, the biggest energy consumers in the world. South Africans install timers for their water heaters and buy blankets for them (I just found this out and will have to investigate!) and a large part of the population walks to work for lack of transport (resulting in a far lower average weight, I’m sure). I don’t have any hard numbers in terms of an energy comparison (but will research for a future post) and I’m not saying that South Africans are any more virtueous – if given the chance, they’d consume cheap energy just as easily. But the point is it is neither cheap nor even always available here. If all Americans had to deal with any of these “hardships,” let’s just say one or two less wars in a strategic oil-producing region would have to be fought.

So for the promised expat tip: Buy plenty of gas bottles when they are available! Like sometime in the middle of summer. Don’t worry about having too many – you will no doubt find a market for them when the shortage sets in.