When sport became essential

For the past few years, South Africa has been in the grip of periodic load shedding. The national power grid, for various reasons, has come under severe pressure, and in order to curtail the possibility of a catastrophic national blackout, Eskom, the country’s electricity provider, has taken measures to deliberately interrupt electrical supplies across the country according to a predetermined and prepublished schedule.

City councils across the country have worked with the national provider in order to limit the strain on the national grid, though Eskom has on a number of occasions taken the initiative out of municipal hands when the risk of a blackout has been sufficiently high. In addition to etolls, load shedding has been one of the greatest frustrations of South African people and one of the greatest economic drains upon the South African economy in recent years.

According to experts, load shedding could have been entirely avoided had government followed the warnings of industry experts more than twenty years ago. As it is, load shedding is a reality, and perhaps the greatest frustration relates to the unreliability of the published schedules by various municipalities. Consumers have pleaded with municipalities to stick to schedules in order to assist with proper planning. Contingency plans can be put in place if consumers know with a degree of certainty when they will and will not have electricity. Unfortunately, these pleas have not been consistently heard. There is a general sense of grumbling on the ground regarding the uncertainty of electrical supply, which has led to massive losses to the economy and even, in at least once instance of which I am aware, the death of one man in the Free State whose oxygen supply was cut off because of unpredictable load shedding in his area.

In the municipality in which I live, council efforts to stick to published schedules have improved, though we have experienced in the last few months one instance in which the supply was interrupted for a full five hours longer than scheduled.

Media sources have published various explanations from Eskom and municipal officials attempting to explain the need and strategy for load shedding. These explanations are sometimes helpful, sometimes frustrating, and often very revealing.

An article published this morning on the MyBroadband website sought to offer an explanation as to why certain suburbs do not appear to be affected as much as others by load shedding.

The City of Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for utility services Ernest Sonnenberg recently provided some insight into why certain areas do not suffer from power cuts.

 

“As far as exclusions from load shedding are concerned, the city is guided by what is referred to as regulation NRS048-9,” he said.

 

“This is the national standard for load shedding and deals with the appropriate treatment of critical loads and the essential load requirements of various customers.”

According to Sonnenberg, the criteria for determining “critical” and “essential” loads include: the safety of people, the environment, the potential damage to plants associated with a critical national product, and technical constraints on executing load shedding and curtailment or restoration. MyBroadband reached out to various municipalities to find out which suburbs in their jurisdictions were guarded from load shedding by regulation NRS048-9. Only the City of Cape Town offered a solid answer to the question, and the answer is somewhat revealing.

The City listed 22 specific grids protected by the regulation, and, for most of them, offered explanations as to why they are protected. These grids largely fall under what can clearly be considered “critical” loads. They include several major hospitals, a national oxygen supplier, water and waste water treatment plants, major business districts and the location of a high court. Certain grids are also protected by virtue of their users’ favourable response to calls for voluntary curtailment of demand on the supply. But in the midst of these legitimately “critical” and “essential” loads, two particular grids stood out: Cape Town’s major rugby and cricket stadia are protected, during fixtures, from load shedding. While ordinary Capetonians may be called upon to live without electricity during times of load shedding for up to three hours at a time, rugby and cricket are so “critical” and “essential” to the life of the City that these sporting fixtures, so long as the situation remains in the local municipality’s control, are guaranteed protection from load shedding.

Now, I realise that I may be looking at things a little simplistically here. After all, professional cricketers and rugby players depend on these fixtures for their livelihood. The income derived from sporting fixtures is likewise a boon to the economy. And planning a family day or night out at the local sporting ground is far easier when there is a reliable promise that the game will not be interrupted by a power failure.

That said, the placement of sporting events alongside truly critical services like medical and water treatment plants makes a statement. The idea of sport as a form of recreation appears to be rather quaint. In the minds of many, sport has indeed become a critical and essential feature of modern-day life.

The Association of Religious Data Services (ARDS) published findings back in 2013 to the effect that sporting events are one of the primary reasons for declining church attendance across the United States. One pastor lamented that parents

will make sure Johnny goes to sports, but when it comes to church, I’ve just seen it over and over again, and even in our own congregation, the families that have children in sport will sacrifice church for the sake of their son or daughter’s sports program, so sports is another huge reason why our church is declining.

Contemporary sporting events often resemble idolatrous worship services, with body paint, ridiculous costumes, chanting and heavy emotional involvement in the outcome of the event. Scenes of weeping fans of the losing side of a contest are common sights on television, but these are but the tip of the iceberg. Extreme examples include the 1994 murder of Colombian soccer defender Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga, who was murdered as a punishment for scoring an own goal in the 1994 Fifa World Cup, which contributed to his team’s elimination from the tournament. Or think of the vandalising of Indian cricket captain M. S. Dhoni’s home after his team’s loss to Bangladesh in the 2007 Cricket World Cup. Clearly, sport is taken by many far too seriously.

Sport is a wonderful gift from God. It is good to enjoy and to participate in sport. But, like any of God’s good gifts, when it becomes something essential to us—something without which we cannot live—we have crossed the line from enjoying God’s good gifts to idolising them.

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