updated 1/20/2008 1:06:16 PM ET 2008-01-20T18:06:16

Nationwide power outages shut down basic services across Zambia and Zimbabwe for hours on Saturday and Sunday as anger mounted in South Africa over power cuts that have wreaked havoc in the continent's economic hub.

There was no immediate explanation for Saturday night's blackout, which hit Zambia and neighboring Zimbabwe almost simultaneously in the early evening, and it was unclear whether there was any connection. Power was restored in Zambia about eight hours later, but long-suffering Zimbabweans remained without electricity, water, telephones and traffic signals for much of Sunday.

Power and water outages occur daily in Zimbabwe's crumbling economy but not on a national scale. Zimbabwe state radio, running on generators, reported the outage was caused by a major breakdown but did not elaborate. The state power utility gave no explanation as power returned in some areas Sunday afternoon.

In one apartment district in central Harare, cheering erupted when the electricity came back on, replaced by jeering and catcalling when it went off again a few minutes later.

The outage shut down automated teller machines and checkout tills at stores and pharmacies, forcing some to close their doors an hour after opening Sunday. Check and local credit card transactions could not be processed.

Harassed officials in Harare said a fault "tripped" the national power grid, plunging the entire country into darkness Saturday night. Unofficial reports in Zambia — which relies on hydroelectricity — said there appeared to be turbine problems at one of the country's dams.

Rains impacting equipment
Both countries have been hit by exceptionally heavy seasonal rains, which is affecting equipment.

Power and water outages have worsened in Zimbabwe dramatically in recent weeks. The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority said earlier this month it had no hard currency for imported spare parts to repair equipment dating back up to 40 years.

Zimbabwe imports about 40 percent of its power from regional neighbors and is in arrears in hard currency for most of the imports. It is suffering chronic shortages of hard currency, local money, food, gasoline and most basic goods.

One of its main suppliers, South Africa, is having its own acute problems with large parts of the country suffering blackouts often lasting several hours. State utility company Eskom says demand is simply too high for it to keep up with, but there is mounting fury that the power cuts are unpredictable and are causing unnecessary economic losses and personal misery.

Trains set on fire in Pretoria
Outraged commuters set fire to six trains near the capital Pretoria on Friday evening after being delayed for two hours due to power outages.

South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance said Sunday that Eskom should cancel supply contracts with its neighbors while its domestic market was in such turmoil.

"Regardless of our contractual obligations, there can simply be no reason for South Africa to supply Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique when there is such a desperate lack of reserve capacity in our domestic market," it said.

Veteran Zimbabwean journalist Peta Thornycroft, who is now based in South Africa, expressed surprise that South Africans should be so upset about "only six power cuts in the last five or six days, and none longer than five hours," _ compared with the eight years of disruption in Zimbabwe. She had words of advice in the Sunday Argus newspaper for suffering South Africans, such as installing solar panels on the roof connected to a large car battery; buying paraffin fridges; and switching to gas.

"Want to know how to cope in this time of gloom?" she said. "Ask a Zimbabwean."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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