Outraged, stranded commuters set fire to three trains in Pretoria at the weekend. The term blackout rage is being bandied about, and a Pretoria psychologist says that's not at all surprising.
The psychological impact of constant power cuts can lead to increased levels of aggression, frustration and a sense of hopelessness, says Dr Johan Visser, a clinical psychologist from Waterkloof.
He makes the point that these days, when a patient enters his consulting rooms, the first five minutes are usually spent venting about the power cuts.
Patients tell him how long they were stuck in traffic, how their lives are being disrupted, how powerless they feel and how the lack of electricity affects them financially.
An increase in mental problems
Visser warns that there could be an increase in mental problems as a result of the power cuts.
“I am going to start seeing patients I don't normally see. If you already have a history of depression, it is going to make you more vulnerable. If you have no history of this, your risk of developing depression is now going to increase.”
Visser says power cuts put an extra strain on people's coping strategies.
“We are confronted on so many levels by things over which we have no control. There is great uncertainty about crime, the political situation in the country and higher interest rates. Now you also have to cope with power cuts. Someone else is basically making decisions about your life.”
Lack of control gets to people.
It is the unpredictability of power cuts that people find deeply disruptive, as it is human nature to want to know what is going to happen in the future.
The energy that you would normally use for dealing with problems in the workplace or on the domestic front is now drained by frustrations caused by power supply disruptions, according to Visser.
This can reduce your problem-solving capacity. "Your reserves are being drained to such an extent that you're going to fall apart somewhere down the line. This happens because people's emotional capacity is being tested to the utmost," explained Visser.
Increase in aggression levels
South Africans are known for being an aggressive nation. Visser predicts that there could be an increase in the levels of domestic violence, because people will be looking for an outlet for the aggression caused by power blackouts.
“These power cuts can cause a wave of uncontrollable aggression and frustration. No person can expect not to be affected by these.
“There is very little that you can do to deal with this problem efficiently, except using the coping mechanisms you already have. But this problem is unlike any other.
“When you have a problem with your boss, you make an appointment and come to some sort of agreement. In the case of marital problems, you go and see a relationship therapist, and try to find some joint solution. But your coping mechanisms, however good they are, are unable to accommodate the unpredictability of power cuts. It is this very unpredictability that increases your vulnerability.”
Visser compares the situation to a volcano waiting to erupt. "If you usually feel a bit anxious, you are going to feel even more anxious now. If you are depressed, your level of depression is going to increase. If you are inclined to be aggressive, you are going to become more aggressive. If you feel threatened, you're going to feel even more threatened because the home alarm is not working due to a power cut."
Visser reckons that if Eskom were to stick to a set power cut schedule it would lead to a decrease in general frustration levels, as people could then plan their lives around this.
(Johanna van Eeden, Beeld, 19 January 2007)