The minister with the worst job in SA

By Branko Brkic 10 February 2010

It’s the job you have to be masochist to want – the chair that, quite literally, is electric. Even so, the Department of Energy is the one ministry holding the fate of South Africa in its hands.

It’s the place where things are bound to go wrong; where you are at the mercy of factors, both within and beyond our borders, that can wreck everything you’ve done; of course, assuming you’ve done something in the first place.

A cynic might say, that’s what happens if President Jacob Zuma gets to appoint a cabinet, and you were originally Thabo Mbeki’s appointee.

South Africa’s energy minister is Elizabeth Dipuo Peters. And it is terribly interesting that in the middle of what government used to call an electricity crisis, many people would be hard-pressed to know that.

Peters herself is, of course, an ANC veteran. She was born in 1960 (which makes her relatively young for an “alleged” Mbekiite) and got her first qualifications from what were then the universities of the North and of the Western Cape. Interestingly, her last two academic courses were at the University of Cape Town School of Business (certificate in executive management) and at Havana (a diploma in international policy management). Talk about living in two different worlds!

She came to “the struggle” (against apartheid) through a Christian students’ association, volunteered in the Domestic Workers Union and went up through the ANC Youth League and the Women’s League. The traditional route really, and the one that chills our blood: We kinda fail to see at which point Peters became qualified to lead the department whose efficacy can make or break this country? Unless her Cuban education included world’s best courses on solving the energy crisis, of course. Cuban people experience daily blackouts in Havana and the rest of that hapless country.

Peters, of all people, should be the one on our TVs every night telling us not to waste power; pictured in earnest talks with people who actually want to generate power, and not charge us up front for it. She should show to the nation that she actually cares and knows what she’s doing.

Okay, perhaps she’s one of those rare politicians who really, truly hates PR. Maybe we can live without all that fluff, but we as a country can’t live without visible government policy on electricity.

Let’s start with a few facts: What makes Peters’s job even more difficult, is that the main generator of electricity, well, legally speaking, the ONLY generator of electricity, apart from your car battery and an accidental solar panel, is Eskom. Which happens to be controlled by the public enterprises ministry. Talk about being hamstrung. Still, Peters is in charge of policy.

Of course, her spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, denies there is any lack of policy when it comes to electricity. In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s that Bheki Khumalo, another Mbekiite in the same, crucial department. “The policy is very strong,” he says, “the policy framework is in place, and we need to just finalise the Eskom funding model, before we can finalise the introduction of private players into the industry.” But then again his job is to spin.

Okay, so the ministry says there is a policy. Fine, but what about speaker after speaker at the recent National Energy Regulator hearings, who told us there wasn’t one. And what about Mike Muller, the former water affairs director general (the guy whose “first 50 litres are free, the rest you pay for” model has been adopted by the UN), who stuck his head over the parapet to exclaim “we’ve wasted the last 16 months”. Clearly, the real issue is that the people waiting in the wings who could actually solve our problems, those profit worshippers, are going to have to wait a bit longer.

What is clear in the policy, according to Khumalo at any rate, is that the country needs to establish an independent system. Currently, Eskom is a generator, buyer, seller and distributor of electricity. That should all change, and there’s a ministerial task team etc.

But what does this remind you of? It reminds us of going back about four years, and a wonderful Aids plan that was going to save the world. It took forever to be finalised. And it only happened one liver transplant later. There was dithering and to-ing and fro-ing unnecessarily, and concerns about dignity and counselling and respect and all that seemingly important tosh. In the end, it was simple – the people who needed the drugs didn’t get them and died. This may be a slightly unfair analogy, but we want to point it out as a lesson on what happens if too many stakeholders are allowed into the process. Nothing happens, and in the end, the lights go out because too many people took their eyes off the ball. We do not want this to happen again.

What is gratifying, is that officially, the department does realise the importance of the electricity problems at the moment. We’re told it’s a key focus, particularly because we’re moving to higher-than-normal tariffs and there’s still a push for universal access by 2014. If people need any reminding of what happens if you push harder than the system can cope, just take a short drive around Johannesburg.

And therein lies one of our concerns. The real issue for this department should be making sure enough electricity is produced. That’s the priority. Nothing else matters. Universal access is great. Political correctness is sweet. Ideological purity is cool. But all of it is just plain useless once the country is sent back to the dark ages.

Our prediction for minister Peters’s year is that life is going to be tough. Really, really tough. She could improve things by getting the best economists in the business to work out how electricity generation and distribution could work properly, with a mix of private and government investment. Then she could find the best lawyers and run it through them. Then publish the damn thing and get on with it. The lights will literally go out if she doesn’t. Let’s hope she eventually gets to say, let there be light.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)

Photo: Department of Energy


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