July 15, 2011

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  new 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.


Anonymous said...

Oh dear, we will arrive to Joburg next week. Our starting period will be freezing then? and I believe we have packed all our winter clothes which are due in end august....
Br malin

Sine said...

Malin - if you're lucky by next week it might not be so bad anymore. And maybe you'll want to indulge the brief rest of the winter (about one more month but warmer during days) and turn on the underfloor, if you have it. Re winter clothing, you don't really need that very much, for us it's just the walk to school in the morning, as soon as the sun is up it's usually ok. And sometimes I don my down jacket inside the house:-) The good news is, McCullagh and Bothwell now has the beanie hats, though I can't remember if you ended up deciding against Dainfern College and for the American School...

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear it is not that much winter left, you're right, we might endulge ourself with the heating, after all we live in sweden and are used to pay a lot for heat during 9month per year :-)
We went for the american school, not sure what a beenie hat is though? (I'll google it :-)
I also read your post regarding expensive sneakers/shoes, and went straight away and bought three extra pair per kid. Then my husband asked if perhaps you compared with american prices, which is about half of the cost of what it is in sweden... Haha, perhaps I am a bit "trigger" happy, now when we are getting close to D day :) anyway, you cannot have too many sneakers, right....
Take care!

2summers.net said...

So true. We were so excited to find a used gas heater for this winter. The gas ran out about a month ago and we hadn't planned. We'll know better for next year! Anyway, great post.

Sine said...

Ha, I"m sure next year we'll all sit on 10 gas bottles each and it won't be a problem, but we'll run out of milk instead...

Malin - too funny, yes, I should have mentioned I was comparing with American sneaker prices which iindeed are very low even compared to Europe. But I just bought some tennis shoes in Germany that were also only 30 Euros or so, still much better than what you can find here. I know what your husband means about trigger happy. Everything in Europe seemed so cheap to me, so we also bought a ton of stuff we didn't need.

@injoburg said...

Last winter we got two 9kg gas bottles for our living room gas heater and always kept one full in case the other ran empty. In spring I decided to return one of them to cash in the deposit, only to learn in autumn that they refused to sell gas unless you brought your own bottle. So expats: get a bunch of 9kg gas bottles filled up in high summer and hang on to them.
Now in Westdene we live in a house (one of just 7000 in Joburg I heard) that's connected to the Egoli gas mains which is brilliant; we can cook when the power goes pow and they even send out correct (!) invoices every month. We're supplied from those huge tanks near the Stanley 44 complex.

Sine said...

correct invoices, wow! Now I'm jealous - what more could you want in life than unlimited gas and correct invoices:-)

W. A. Jeffrey said...

The USA has such wonderful surpluses of things because we are a successful country with a relatively free market. If SA copied our policies (especially our pre 1912 ones before we started allowing little bits of socialism to creep in) they could have the same high standard of living with more reliable service delivery as well.

As to the petrol and gas problems I am not sure what is at work here. Like you, I figure they should have had many years to figure out to stock up ahead of time so as not to have shortages. My guess is that the government engages in price controls and the import regulations and tariffs are a problem as well. In these things my first guess is to blame government intervention even if I don't know all the particulars yet. Further investigation proves me right 9 times out of 10.

Having to plan ahead for every little thing is one of the things I am not looking forward to when I become an expat in SA. But I figure once I get used to it I shouldn't have much trouble. Adapt to survive and all that. Despite the hassles here and there it will be worth it to get away from the midwestern winters with the snow and ice and bitterly cold temps that stay all day as well as night.

One more thought: I am enough of an optimist to believe that the day will come when the majority of the things that irritate me about SA will be long gone and little more than a quirky memory. Who would have predicted in 1976 when I was born that inside of 20 years the Soviet Union would be no more and apartheid swept away and Nelson Mandela the democratically elected President of SA? I doubt you could find a single person that would have predicted that.