Will the lights go out in South Africa? (Reuters)

Rather unfortunately, it appears that we could well be having a winter of power blackouts here in South Africa, undoubtedly leading to a winter of discontent - in my household anyway.

Because of the threat, state monopoly Eskom, which was set up in 1923 and provides 95% of South Africa's energy, has been pleading with customers to try to conserve electricity. Supply will be "very tight" over the next few months, particularly during the evening peak usage time of 5-9pm.

It's at that point that most people get in from work and so, rather inconveniently for us home bodies, cause a surge in demand by having the audacity to switch on their lights, heaters, cookers and other multifarious gadgets all at once.

Because of this selfish behaviour, everyone is now being asked to turn off their non-essential lights and appliances, which includes that all-important pool pump - a request that is likely to cause mini-riots in the suburbs.

The ultimate aim is to prevent the need for so-called "load shedding" or planned rolling blackouts across different areas of the country.

Last time that little tactic was employed, in 2008, in a bid to ensure the stability of the national grid, it cost the South African economy a stonking R50bn (£3.6bn). You can see why Eskom would be keen to prevent a similar debacle.

But the crux of the problem at the moment is that, following a decade of government underinvestment, the country's energy production system is in desperate need of an overhaul, not least to cater to the requirements of the ever-burgeoning townships.

Almost two-thirds of Eskom's power stations are more than midway through their expected operating lives, but the company has found it tricky to undertake higher levels of vital planned maintenance work while continuing to meet growing demand.

South Africa's green agenda

The situation has got to such a stage that the work can't be put off any longer and so the utility is rolling out a five-year maintenance plan to try to ensure that the lights stay on until two new power stations come onstream in 2014 and 2017 respectively. Not good.

But all of these shenanigans got me to wondering about South Africa's green agenda. Perhaps somewhat naively, you kind of think that, in a country as beautiful as this one, people might be really keen to preserve it, conserve it, protect it and nurture it.

Looking at things in terms of carbon emissions though, South Africa is the continent's worst polluter, and being one of the heaviest coal users anywhere, is one of the top 20 carbon emitters in the world.

But the government does appear to be trying to clean up its act. By 2030, it's requiring that 42% or so of all electricity generated in the country must come from renewable sources - a mix of wind, solar and hydro.

And US-based research body, the Pew Charitable Trusts, recently lauded South Africa for not only being a world leader in the green-energy race, but also for acting as a "cornerstone of clean energy development for the entire African continent", after investing a huge $5.5bn in 28 projects last year. Heady stuff.

Without meaning to put a great, big dampener on things, at street level things don't look quite as glowing - although my observations are purely anecdotal and certainly aren't based on any scientific fact.

For example, unlike in the UK, the green issue doesn't appear to be particularly high up the middle class agenda in terms of conversation, or media coverage for that matter. And, despite the Mediterranean sunshine, I've yet to see a solar panel - let alone a wind generator - attached to anyone's house.

Moreover, although recycling is now a fairly well-established British habit, it appears that the lonely see-through plastic recycling bag that we put out faithfully every week will remain friendless for the foreseeable future.

Apparent indifference and underground recycling

When I've asked, people just pull a face, waft their hands around and pooh-pooh the matter, preferring to use their council-supplied offering as a freebie bin-bag instead.

To try to understand this apparent indifference, I asked our maid (in a non-accusatory fashion, I hasten to add) if she ever recycled anything. But her response, somewhat mystifyingly, was: "No. I live in a Coloured area."

On enquiring (perhaps naively) as to why that should make any difference, she told me that the recycling people didn't go there - only to more expensive areas such as the one in which we live. Which seems a bit bizarre to me.

Although there are recycling centres dotted around, as with everything in life, if it's going to be a hassle, people don't tend to bother. And so it is here too.

There is a kind of underground recycling scene going on nonetheless. Early each Tuesday morning before the recycling and rubbish trucks arrive, a veritable army of entrepreneurial black men emerge, pushing shopping trolleys and scouring the waste for useful items such as bottles that can be sold on for a couple of rand. Cardboard is another favourite.

A further thing is the dearth of organic and fairtrade goods. Being a bit of a closet greenie, and a great believer in the power of the pound being able to make a difference in a world controlled by rampant corporate interests, I like to spend my grocery money as judiciously as I can.

But it's a tough ask over here. You'll see the odd item in our Woolworths, which is similar to Marks & Spencer and has close historical ties with it, as well as in the various incarnations of Spar, which is South Africa's equivalent of Waitrose. But there's no chance if you go to the more downmarket chains of Checkers or Pick 'n Pay.

Another option though is to go to one of the food festivals or slow-food markets, of which there are many. But more on those later...


My South African Adventure: Stellenbosch, Beautiful City with Ugly Apartheid Past [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Wild Times with Violin Spiders, Goshawks - and Squirrels

My South African Adventure: Forgetting Britain in the Big Freeze [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Keep 'Em Safe Drug Abuse Campaign [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Grape Expectations in Land of Wine [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Over-the-Top Security is Safe as Houses [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Kraal Gallery, 102faces.com and 2people1life.com Seize the Day [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Oscar Pistorius is the Talk of the Braai [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Technology-Starved Amish Lifestyle is not for Me [BLOG]

My South Africa Adventure: Expat Briton Catherine Everett's First Taste of Mediterranean Manana Vibe [BLOG]

Cath Everett is a resting journalist who has written about business, technology and HR issues for over 20 years. She recently moved from the UK to South Africa with her husband.