ANALYSIS

Thirteen wasted years later, our electricity network is crumbling – and South Africa with it

By Stephen Grootes 3 June 2021

(Photo: Flickr / Mongezi Mtati)

Joburg’s crumbling infrastructure has brought home the lived reality of millions of people, even to South Africa’s elite. It is but a simple demonstration of what appears to be the complete failure of the governing party to deal with problems that everyone was aware of for so many years.

Stephen Grootes

To make things worse, the solutions to many of the problems have been readily available for many years but have not been implemented, or the delivery has been hampered by the corrosive effect of corruption. This delivery failure is leading to an even deeper, and possibly permanent, inequality.

Many people would have had their first experience of load shedding in early 2008. There had been problems in the Western Cape as early as 2006, but those were temporary. The beginning of 2008, soon after Jacob Zuma became the ANC leader, was the moment that load shedding became a national obsession.

Electricity is a symbol of many things in a country: it is vitally important to an economy and involves a myriad of systems that have to work on a continuous basis. Electricity production also presents rich opportunities for corruption.

In 2008 there were already several solutions on the table to fix our problems.

We knew then that in Germany some people had solar panels on their roofs, and were feeding power to the national grid. That process has accelerated to the point where more than a million homes in the country now have solar panels. Sometimes Germany produces more electricity than it can use.

Also, in 2008, it was clear the metering systems used by big councils, such as Joburg, were not fit for purpose.

One method of reducing demand for power is to charge more for it at peak times, and less at off-peak times. This would encourage people to, for instance, use washing machines on weekends or to bake in the morning, rather than in the evening, to avoid paying peak-time rates.

But very few, if any, meters have been changed by councils in most parts of the country.

In 2008, Eskom introduced a programme that would give people a rebate to install solar water heaters. As two academics found, the programme failed because it was not implemented properly.

Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe recently confirmed that the government had bought 87,000 solar water geysers. Only 7,000 were installed.

In the meantime, it has cost more than R300-million just to store the remaining 80,000 geysers that were not installed.

English fails to do this insanity justice.

Let’s repeat: 

  • 87,000 geysers bought; 
  • 7,000 installed; and
  • R300-million spent on storage

Electricity to heat water accounts for 40% of the cost of power for middle-income homes. Imagine the savings that have been lost.

Meanwhile, energy policy as a whole has not produced any results.

South Africa has what is called “high-quality photovoltaic radiation”. It’s sunny most of the time. It is also windy occasionally. In some places, like Gqeberha, quite often, actually.

To produce electricity cheaply, network effects are important; it is much cheaper to produce power in mass for people to use and share, than for each house to produce it for themselves. This applies to solar power and wind power too.

And yet government policy has not resulted in these resources being used.

Unlike coal, solar power does not need refuelling, it does not need consumables, or incredibly expensive transportation. It also does not produce pollution while producing energy. This was obvious when then-President Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House back in 1979.

Forty years later, we still do not produce solar power in any big, government-sanctioned way.

Eskom, of course, has completely failed in this period.

It produces less power now than it did in 2008. And in the period from 2008 until 2017, the number of people it employed to produce less electricity shot up, from 32,000 in 2003 to 47,000 in 2017 (source: Africa Check).

The corruption at Eskom has been well-detailed at the Zondo Commission. 

Only now is it making headway in removing people who have made money from the system.

The ANC, of course, has said that some of this was out of its hands. But that is not true.

One of the reasons we have power cuts now is because Medupi and Kusile power stations used boilers made by Hitachi SA. Chancellor House, owned by the ANC, owned part of Hitachi SA – a fact which cost Hitachi’s parent company dearly when the US SEC fined it $19-million, because that kind of transaction is considered to be corruption.

The ANC was in charge of economic and energy policy during all material times.

Even now, it is the ANC’s minister, Gwede Mantashe, who is refusing to allow more solar and other renewable energy to be used in the system in any large way, while instead claiming that we need liquified natural gas as part of the Karpowership SA contract, in an “emergency” programme that will last for 20 years.

This is an election year and ANC leaders are likely to come under intense pressure over the state of electricity infrastructure.

It was because of power cuts in Joburg last week that Johannesburg Water could not fill reservoirs to run the water systems around the Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa hospitals.

When asked about this on SAfm, Joburg’s Member of the Mayoral Committee for Infrastructure, Mpho Moerane, said they were aware of the city’s crumbling infrastructure. He said, “We had a plan, it was disrupted in 2016”, and that, “if there was no disruption, we wouldn’t be where we are…”.

The ANC, essentially, is suggesting that losing power to the DA for three years in Joburg explains why infrastructure has crumbled in the last 20 years.

There is some hope, though. Despite the load shedding, Eskom appears to be getting its house in order. There are now hard and fast deadlines for when things should improve.

But, in the meantime, this crisis has badly damaged our already divided society.

One way in which our people are brought together is that they share the same networks, whether they be power systems, water sources or roads. When these systems succeed or fail, they are what keeps us together, despite differences of racialised inequality, class or language.

But now, after years of frustration, those who can are withdrawing from the systems.

It’s not that the rich and those in the upper middle class have only stopped using the police or public schools. Now they are using their own electricity too.

Some are using generators, others are using solar power. This protects them from load shedding.

There is a vital social consequence of this. As Jonny Steinberg pointed out in Business Day two weeks ago, the middle class has a louder voice in society and more power. If they stop using public services, then the poor do not have the voice or the power to force the elites in government to fix these services, which means they may never be fixed.

As a result, when those who can do so leave the electricity networks that are failing, the chances of the networks being repaired for the entire country start to decline. And that, in turn, re-entrenches our inequality.

There are many individuals to blame, practically the entire governing party.

And there are dynamics as well: the rise of corruption, the difficulties around energy policy, the complexities of keeping systems running.

But in the end, one simple fact stands out.

The past 13 years have been wasted. We are now living with the consequences – and will live with them for many years to come. DM

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All Comments 61

    • Agreed. The requirements to build new power stations to provide additional power and replace old, outdated plants was clearly identified in the early 1990’s. Thabo Mbeki’s Government chose to ignore the requests for this to happen and “kicked the can down the road”. Result – too little too late and a scramble to build when it was too late. The latter being both in terms of time and expertise. It was, however, a great opportunity for the ANC to enter the “trough” in a big way.

      The lost opportunity to bring people on board with power generation, as Germany has done, is unforgivable. It is, of course, due to “nothing in it for me / us (ANC)”.

      • For a free pass all they needed to say was that it was for the ANC.
        With the ANC it is always someone else’s fault

        • The country’s resources went to paying for arms and by extension the ANC. Even the equipment that was needed has gone to waste because it hasn’t been looked after.

  • Bankrupt political ideology leading to Cadre deployment is at the root of our massive ills.
    Time to stop this blind stumbling down the path of destruction, ANC!!

  • Whether it is 13 years or 26 years is not the point. The point is that the ANC, in which senior minister Mantashe played, and still does, a major role. Load shedding will simply get worse, and electricity unbearably expensive, resulting an an acceleration of economic decline. I have to write quickly, because my power will go off soon, again!

    • Agreed. Grootes was merely highlighting electricity. The problems began the day Mandela formed his first cabinet. Modise (arms deal), Bengu ( closed training colleges, outcomes based education), Dlamini-Zuma (whatever she touched), etc, etc. There were some good people, now mostly long gone. Who then to blame? Obviously apartheid.

      • Now you’re talking! The anc has uselessness and immorality and unethical behaviour engraved in it’s DNA. And aparthate gets blamed for that as well.

    • Let’s organise the biggest protest action the world has ever witnessed. Let’s get 500 0o0 people together in chunks of 10 000 across SA and demand something that will change things. Oh, I almost forgot to do my home work. The biggest ever protest action took place in 2003 when 3 million anti-war protesters took to the streets. Sorry for the silly idea. It is much better to moan together in a comment section of DM.

    • What does Peter Bruce have to say about his call to vote for Ramaphosa as his is the “good” ANC”, before the last elections?

  • Those who refuse to learn from prior mistakes are doomed to repeat them – Karpowership – already a corrupted tender process that will not end well. Let’s continue to vote for the ANC – delivering a better life for all!

  • So true Stephen. I recently had a rant on our residents group (middle class area) and got castigated and told “oh stop moaning, just put in a backup system”. They completely missed the point about one of my employees in Soweto who hadn’t had power for 6 months.
    So yes, we have private security, private medical aid and now private power so what could go wrong?
    It’s a case of I’m all right Jack!

  • Renewables upset the “democratic central” control that has been carefully constructed over the electricity supply industry. Limited opportunities for cadre deployment, Black Elite Enrichment, insertion of intermediaries, union controlled workers, ANC party donations, etc. No surprise that there is no enthusiasm for renewables. Far from being a”progressive” party, ideologically the ANC is a dinosaur stuck in a 70’s eastern European time-warp.
    Bad policies and corruption are a particularly corrosive combination.

  • You can’t fail at something you never set out to achieve. The ANC never had any intention of bringing equality to this country. They perfected making SA citizens more racist and more poor and actually believing they are a political organization when in fact they have been a criminal one for many years now. Im not even horrified anymore… I’ve accepted they’re just gangsters.

  • The reason for the indecision is simple. The ANC are working on how to come between the wind and the turbine (or the sun and the solar panel) so they can get their cut.

    Yesterday in Hermanus I overheard 2 overseas visitors saying that they were sick to death of power cuts and would not be returning…..

  • 87 000 solar geysers bought, 7 000 installed. A good illustration why communist type centralised planning fails repeatedly. It is easy for a central planner to buy 87 000 geysers. But this fails to account for local constraints and problems. The hard bit is implementation. This needs to be done at a lower and local level by competent people.

    • They not real communists. Otherwise Cele would have his police forcing residents to install the geysers while the army was on standby to shoot dissidents. I wonder if there is any way to get a cut price on one of these geysers.?

  • I am certain ‘they’ can not guarantee that the 80000 remaining solar geysers have not been given to cadres for free or have not been stolen. Those 2008 models are probably so outdated and damaged by now that most of the ones left over won’t work anymore.

  • We knew the Nats were wrong when they told us the ANC would ruin the country – we just didn’t realise that they were 100% wrong. These guys are twice as bad as they said they’d be!

    • “We knew the Nats were wrong when they told us the ANC would ruin the country”…but, of late, the creeping suspicion that they could have been correct has reached critical mass. Disappointment and remorse are cruel emotions.

  • Mantashe is a lifelong communist and is not about to change. The alliance between the ANC and the SACP is really a case of the SACP tail wagging the ANC dog. It is beyond Ramaphosa’s powers to change this. All the key economic ministries are run by SACP deployees, with predictable results. Why is anyone surprised when they implement exactly the policies that they said they would?

    • And hget exactly the results they never expected because they totally overestimated the workers’ abilities, education and willingness. I mean the idea was not to work for the same poor wages and just change the colour of the boss’s skin.

    • Well, we all know, but are not allowed to say it, safe this. He is the biggest culprit of state capture, second to Zuma, when he was secretary general of the ANC. Now, as a minister, and as chairman of the ANC and top six, he simply carry on with his destructive work. In the process coining it with fraudulent energy contracts. None of the top 6 are clean, and thus by definition, the whole of the ANC NEC

    • Thinks about ways to involve family and friends in looting while reminiscing about foolish prophetesses from yesteryear. Turns off his hearing aid whenever he hears “renewables” and thinks Karpowerships bring Turkish Delight to Woolworths.

  • The reality is that there will be no forthcoming solution from government. The only thing we can do is to get as self sufficient as we can. We switched to Gas geysers and stoves years ago, next is a good solar system that we are saving for which has come down considerably in price over the years. Government is not going to loose out though, a friend of mine who has solar has to pay the City of Cape Town R450 a month just for having it!

    • Which City of Cape Town is that? Not the one I live in! I have had a 3 kWt solar set-up on my roof since 2015. I paid a hefty once-off to register it with the CoCT but the only R450 I pay is for standard pre-paid electricity monthly.

  • There is a reality not often spoken of. We need big power stations to supply base loads and they take years of planning and implementation. Renewables yes, but we can’t do without the large power stations.

    • What are Medupi and Kusile supposed to be? And this Musina/Makhado one? Give the ANC a project and you can guarantee a ****-**.

      • If Medupi and Kusile had been completed in the same fashion as Duvha, Kendal and Matimba before them, the would have been fully functioning and base loading ten years ago. However those 3 stations were completed between 1979 and 1987, that should mean something.

  • Cry the Broken Country ……
    All due to broken self serving leadership!
    This is a crime against humanity that is being perpetuated

  • “Gangster State” couldn’t be more apt. No government or governing just unfettered thievery and incompetence.
    Without a viable opposition, the guaranteed death spiral that the ANC is inflicting on South Africa continues unabated.
    What is the DA’s explanation for a measly 20% support base?
    Are they as culpable as the ANC in SA’s demise?

      • Aai, aai, Glyn, I know you are as passionate about our country as I am. And I so wish a party like the DA was a real alternative. But it won’t ever be, simply because it is perceived by most as a Whites Only party, and more so the last 2 years. Zille’s “comeback” after her colonial tweets, and Tony Leon’s remark about Mmusi Maimane, “an experiment gone wrong” simply did it for me. And now the deputy Major in Stellenbosch is up for murder of the previous deputy Major, both DA. I will throw my weight behind ActionSA, and their leader Herman Mashaba, a previous leader of the DA, and Major of Johannesburg, whom resigned following Zille’s “return”

          • ActionSA and EFF are different parties from the opposite of the spiral. So before you throw questionable insults at me, do your homework. And I can vote for whom I wish, and it certainly won’t be a party that you support

      • And Mr Reynolds, Leon’s words “an experiment gone wrong” is an insult hundred times bigger than the K-word. If the DA regarded this as a test-tube experiment, whilst Mr. Leon surround himself with his luxuries, then I am afraid your are part and parcel of an experiment similar to Donald Trump’s escapades, whom also is a blatant racist

      • I am seriously looking at the Patriotic Alliance led by none other than Gayton Mckenzie. he will just about decimate the DA’s coloured voting bloc, already started in Eldos. At least there you know what you are getting into.

  • “ this is a disaster that we inherited. It is our disaster now, we cannot continue blaming our predecessors about it”
    Uncle Gweezy, could it possibly be that your predecessors are from the same political party that you’re in?
    Just asking for a friend, obviously!

  • And yet even now the cadres carry on stealing, in fact it’s become a frenzy with PPE. What the writer fails to point out is that under DA control their municipalities are holding it all together, particularly in the Western Cape where everything still works.

    • Yeh, really? For how much longer? For White suburbs maybe. What about the coloured areas? The DA has already lost control, with the Dep Major of Stellenbosch charged with murder. Already I see service delivery in the municipalities of Saldanha Bay, Ceres, Overberg, Oudtshoorn, Beaufort West, and several others, in dramatic decline, and the by-elections proof it. So hang on to the past, the DA has lost it. Keep the current leaders, and the DA will be no more!

      • I despair of comments like this as the aim seems to be to focus on individual politicians but turn a blind eye to the DA policies and standard of governance, the latter measured annually by the Auditor General. It is negative comments such as this that perpetuate the ANC into perpetuity!

        • Mr. Ross….you are right off course. But what has been done in the past by the DA until they discarded the “experiment”. What matters is the current and the future, not the past victories. As bad as the ANC is, which is exposed on all fronts, such as DM, the DA in its current format is NO better. You regard this as negative? Well sir, sit in your chair and sip your expensive glass of imported whiskey. You have no idea what the townships in and around Cape Town looks like. And for that matter, the whole of the Western Cape . DA standard and policies? You must be joking.

          • And by the way, just show me one, just ONE, White family that lives in one of the shacks in the whole of the Western Cape. It is people like you, and Mr Reynolds, why Whites are so hated 27 years after democracy. It is opinions like yours, that many Whites fears for what is to become. You simply defend White Supremacy.

          • Thank you for your comments. For the record, I prefer SA wine to Irish or American whiskey. My wife and I have visited several townships, have had a township young girl living with us while paying for her secondary schooling, donated a lot to charities that help and feed people in townships. I have never broadcast this before but thought that correcting your ignorance merited me doing so.

      • Thank you Paddy, I appreciate you answer, and I complement you for what you are doing. However, good people like you does not make the top leadership of the DA equally responsible, which they are not. One just need to listen to Renaldo Gouws, SA counsellor in PE, on his YouTube channel. Please pay it a visit, and judge for yourself. I live in the country of the WC, and have no doubt that service levels have dropped significantly in the last 2 years. Nevertheless, lets hope the DA wakes up, but judging on by-election results such as Eldorado Park, it is most unlikely

  • sorry no – stuff this!

    I am not going to be told I am contributing to the problem because I put generators and solar power in to keep a 550 worker factory going!!!

  • Let’s repeat:

    87,000 geysers bought;
    7,000 installed; and
    R300-million spent on storage!

    Unbelievable – and most likely still in storage instead of coming up with a reduced cost plan to distribute ASAP, and one more thing, who owns the warehouses and provides the security for safeguarding the stock…I smell a RAT…

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