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Learning in the open

This post is part of the Green Web Fellowship. Fellows are exploring the intersection of digital rights and climate justice; and are reflecting honestly on what they learn. More about the fellowship and the fellows.

A people-centred approach to thinking about data centres in South Africa

Samantha Ndiwalana Green Web Fellow 2024

When I got the news I couldn’t believe it! Receiving the Green Web Fellowship felt unexpected. Why? I think it partly comes down to a feeling of pleasant surprise that human-centred work on the intersection of climate justice and technology in an African context might finally be getting its moment in the sun. Existing research on data centres tends to focus almost solely on the economic implications of loadshedding and water shortages, and tends to gloss over the human impact. I hope that my fellowship project can be part of the changing narrative.

Loadshedding? What’s that?

But first, let’s take a few steps back. What is loadshedding? Towards the end of 2007, South Africa began experiencing a series of planned power outages which are colloquially known as loadshedding. Essentially, a load or a burden on South Africa’s energy grid is shed (areas of the country are cut off from electricity) so that Eskom, the national energy provider, can continue to provide electricity to the rest of the country. Here, Eskom shares a detailed account of the highs and lows of South Africa’s energy history.

But what does this have to do with tech?

Data centres play an important role in development by connecting the country to the internet, facilitating everything from economic growth to allowing people to wile the time away watching cat videos on TikTok. In this way, data centres can be seen as a tool with which developing countries can hope to achieve the utopia of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. However, data centres are not a silver bullet. In fact, they are known for using an inordinate amount of power and water. Precious resources that South Africans too often have to do without.

How will my fellowship project address this issue?

  1. Understanding relationships: A key goal is better understanding the relationship between data centres and loadshedding. For example, are they affected by power cuts or are they seen as an exception? If so, why are they afforded this privilege?
  2. Exceptions to the rule: Building on the first point, if data centres are exempt from loadshedding, where are the majority South Africa’s data centres located and does the exemption extend to its neighbours in that area? This has implications for fairness and power dynamics. For example, if a data centre is located in an area outside of the city near informal housing, does the data centre experience electricity while the township does not? 
  3. Activate the activists: I want to connect with South African climate activists to get an understanding of what work they are already doing on this topic and discuss ways in which we can support and amplify their work. 
  4. What does the data say: Eskom and local municipalities have worked in creative ways to share information on loadshedding. Is the same approach followed for water shortages? If not, why not?

Data dive: Are there improvements that can be made to how the existing data is presented to make it easier for researchers and advocates to use in their work? Afterall, knowledge, in this case information, is power.

Next steps

As I get started on this work, I invite anyone who would like to share any feedback, comments, ideas, or make connections to climate advocates in South Africa to reach out. I look forward to hearing from you and working with you!

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