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African Winter: The Oil Dimension

How are southern Africa's cold winter nights causing more problems for the already plagued continent?

August 23, 2005

How are southern Africa's cold winter nights causing more problems for the already plagued continent?

A friend living in Utah in the United States recently asked me about South Africa. “How cold does it get there in winter?” Utah freezes with particular frigidity in a cold wintry climate. In Johannesburg’s winter, night temperatures approach — or plummet — toward zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).

“You have no indoor heat, right?” my friend probed. With the exception of some offices and shopping malls, that is correct — especially for homes. Therefore, zero degrees is truly cold. My friend said she would prefer to remain in Utah.

In wintry South Africa, the sun in the evening sinks below the horizon. The blackness of the sky bespeaks the bone-cold temperatures inside. The setting sun sends shivers down spines and evokes visions of oil, paraffin, lamps, lots of cups of tea — and hot water bottles in bed.

Restaurants provide blankets and coal-fires to keep customers warm. They continue to sit outside, scarves wrapped around their necks, stocking caps pulled over their heads, undeterred. Wine and coffee fuel internal fires.

For those without restaurants, blankets, fires and external or internal heat, the bitter cold is biting. Witness those in South Africa, mostly black workers or shack dwellers, on the roadsides along the highway routes and even in the suburbs, huddled around fires, frantically trying to stay warm.

Witness Zimbabweans, recently expelled from their homes only to have them demolished. Hungry, homeless and cold, they await the health, human and deadly consequences.

Without access to adequate oil, survival is at stake. Without access to oil, achievement is also at stake.

Reading is next to impossible. This is especially the case when reading is accomplished by the light of a lamp with a limited supply of oil.

I recently spoke to a girl in Bronkhorstspruit, outside of Pretoria, who was interested in pursuing a career in tourism. She wanted to quit school after Standard 10 — the equivalent of 8th grade. I tried to encourage her to remain in school.

I suggested that she strive to read on her own, and to complete matric, her high school diploma. I asked her whether she could not read in the evening. “I walk for two hours to and from school,” she replied. “Then I have to do chores and after that, it’s too dark to read.”

And in the cold and dark, what occurs? If nine months later, come March and April, a new peak of babies make their appearance in the world, an insightful guess lays the answer bare. These children should be the delights of the future. However, in southern Africa, they are also the harbingers of danger and of death.

That is not to imply that cold and dark are determinants of intimacy and of HIV/AIDS. It is, however, to suggest that without alternative activities available, the preponderance of ignoring precaution and protection in the cold and darks raises the risk of viral transmission.

Increased access to oil would not eliminate these challenges to southern Africa. Nonetheless, it could make a contribution to championing both survival and success.

The daylight hours are still strewn with sunlight. Would it not be possible for international agencies and donors, most of which come from countries with ample resources, to provide and pay for — or to acquire — oil? Couldn’t these international agencies and donors offer solar panels, not just debt relief or indefinite flows of aid?

Would it not be possible to collaborate with southern African developers and technologists to further extend and hone solar technology, to turn the abundance of the sun’s ample energy into heat and light for South Africans and southern Africans?

Would it not make both environmental and existential sense to transform such an opportunity — poignantly illustrated by the lack of oil — into an initiative to enable southern Africans to survive and to excel?

It should come as no surprise that cold and dark have adverse effects on living and life. Human beings require warmth and light on the inside and the outside to be able to be both healthy and productive.

Would it therefore not be a worthwhile investment for the international community to support initiatives which underscore the need and the ability to survive?

Shouldn’t the international community allow the people of southern Africa to excel through alternative uses of technology by securing people against cold and dark and, thereby, enabling them to live and to have life in a safer, more sustainable environment?

Their security today and in the future will translate into greater security around the world. We all need warmth, whether in Utah or Johannesburg, and that universal need should be enough impetus to see it met.