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Seeing is believing: Ramaphosa’s incoming energy prom...

South Africa

ANALYSIS

Seeing is believing: Ramaphosa’s incoming energy promise better be electrifyin’

From left: Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe. (Photo: Julia Evans) | Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter. (Photo: Gallo Images / Rapport / Deon Raath) | President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

In the time since load shedding first occurred, in late 2007, an entire generation has entered school at the age of seven and is now in its third year of tertiary education. Through all of this time, the ANC has done nothing to cement trust that it is capable of resolving the problem.

With our power crisis now reaching unprecedented levels and having a direct and massive impact on people’s daily lives, incomes and morale, pressure is now at boiling point for the government to act.

Puzzlingly, despite all the (very) public anger and outrage, there has been almost total silence from the people who can make the key decisions, even as the governing ANC’s national executive committee has already said there must be action and the private sector should have a bigger role in power generation.

However, there are now finally some signs that the government will act, as President Cyril Ramaphosa has hinted that there will be an important announcement in the next few days. But there are still structural reasons why the government may fail to act in a decisive way. And just because this bout of load shedding is the worst on record, it does not necessarily mean the politics behind the problem has changed.

On Monday morning, Ramaphosa used his weekly newsletter to discuss load shedding, stating:

“The message is clear: this is no time for business as usual… We will then, in the coming days, be able to announce a comprehensive set of actions to achieve much faster progress in tackling load shedding.”

He also claimed that there had been important work behind the scenes in tackling this issue.

In some ways, Ramaphosa is following the ANC, which has recently (again) called for an end to load shedding. Its NEC stated last week that it wants Eskom “to “facilitate private investment in new generation capacity… speed up the repurposing of power stations with alternate energy sources”, along with other measures.

Ramaphosa also says:

“There is no reason why a country like ours — with the skills, capabilities and resources we have at our disposal — should have to endure a shortage of electricity.”

Gwede Mantashe

He is, of course, correct in his assessment. This underscores how load shedding is entirely the fault of bad management. It is the ANC that is directly and solely responsible. This is partly the reason for some of the pressure that has been building on Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe.

As has been noted many times, he is the only person in the country allowed to authorise additional generating capacity for the grid. As a group of experts put it in Daily Maverick just this past weekend, he “has the power to end load shedding”.

Fin24’s Carol Paton suggested that Mantashe must carry much of the blame for this round of power cuts because it is his department that had failed to connect new capacity to the grid. In particular, Paton and others have been critical of the decision by Mantashe’s department to try to sign a deal with Karpowership, which would see that company receiving a contract on an emergency basis that would last 20 years.

This was just one of several important mistakes by Mantashe that, as unenforced as they were, have contributed considerably to our situation.

If there is one issue that unites both organised business and organised labour it’s their frustration and anger at load shedding. Both Cosatu and Business Leadership SA have called for quick action, as it threatens both their constituencies directly.

Independent power producers

For many, the solution is simple: create a programme to allow more independent power producers to generate renewable energy.

The real attraction for this kind of power is in its speed — both the wind and solar energy industries claim they can add power to the grid in just two years as their systems are relatively quick to build.

This is not the case with new coal power stations, gas power stations and particularly nuclear power stations, which require a decade at least.

Meanwhile, Mantashe has been accused of standing in the way of these renewable industries, of refusing to allow them the space to act.

For the many, this is evidence that he is making an ideological decision, that he is refusing to allow the private sector to play a bigger role because that will weaken the role of the government and Eskom, despite the fact that Ramaphosa himself has said that we cannot rely on Eskom or a single producer of electricity ever again — despite the statements by the ANC NEC.

Eskom’s top management, including its CEO Andre de Ruyter, have said many times that they welcome more private generation. Frankly, Eskom needs every megawatt it can scrounge.

Privatisation

To add to the view that this may also be an ideological issue, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi has told Bloomberg that he believes it would be wrong to privatise Eskom as that would mean electricity would be too expensive for the poor.

But this does not mean that Nxesi is at odds with the ANC or Ramaphosa. Rather, he appears to be saying that he does not want wholesale privatisation of the utility. He is correct.

While the focus of the moment is to increase the number of megawatts generated and added to the grid, it is important not to lose sight of what could happen if only the rich have electricity. It would lead to a series of golf islands in a sea of poverty and darkness.

This simply must not happen. It would be the end of South Africa as we know it. It is vital that we keep the rich in a network that can be used to subsidise electricity for the poor.

In arguing against all of this, Mantashe says that renewable energy will not ensure there is baseload power. In other words, there would not be enough electricity all the time, no matter what the weather conditions.

As anyone who has followed our politics for some time will know, Mantashe is an incredibly canny politician.

‘Taking political bullets for Ramaphosa’

As Professor Anthony Butler has suggested, he may well be playing an important political role in that his “avowed stance on a just transition showcases the government’s claim to be heeding the voices of the tens of thousands of workers in the energy sector who depend directly on the coal economy. In this way, he is taking political bullets that would otherwise hit Ramaphosa. He is also gradually winning over labour and union audiences to the need for a transition, by showing he is their advocate and not simply a poodle of business or wealthy Western countries.”

Those who support Mantashe could argue that in fact, to move away from coal for the first time in our history since electricity was provided on a large scale is always going to be very disruptive to our society. It will alter long-running financial flows — whole communities have been created around coal and receive incomes through the coal mining sector. For this to disappear quickly will lead to major problems in a society already battling with inequality and unemployment.

There is also a long history of this.

In the time since load shedding first occurred, in late 2007, an entire generation has entered school at the age of seven and is now in its third year of tertiary education. Through all of this time, the ANC has done nothing to cement trust that it is capable of resolving the problem.

This is despite the party knowing that load shedding costs it votes. It has known this for many years and has still failed to focus solely on resolving the problem.

It is for this reason that Ramaphosa’s promise that there will be action soon is unlikely to inspire an overwhelming sense of relief and instil new confidence.

The people of the ravaged country of South Africa will believe it when they see it. DM

Gallery

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All Comments 13

  • If Mantashe is an astute politician, then I’m a Dutchman (no offence to the Dutch. I’m sure that they are really very nice people). A cabinet of blind men with white sticks could not have failed more comprehensively to ignore the potential mess and political problems which they have jointly created since the flags were waved in the 1990s. An ageing single nationalised power entity was NEVER going to meet the demands – technically or numerically – of this country.

  • A major part of the problem is that Eskom is dragging its feet on allowing private providers to wheel their electricity through its grid. We proposed a renewable energy programme with benefits to the local community in Peacevale, Cliffdale and Hammarsdale four years ago. Durban’s Energy Office dragged their heels for two years before developing a policy, but then offered uneconomic rates for buying power. Durban’s planners eventually gave provisional permission, we have a buyer, we have a wheeler, but Eskom says we will have to build a new sub-station, if they allow us to supply the grid at all, which they have not committed to! After four years, we are giving up, and trying instead to build basic off-grid housing using solar and our boreholes, but this too will meet with planning hurdles and Durban tardiness! It feels as if eThekwini is trying as hard as it can to discourage investment! As Stephen says above, our President’s promises are a move in the right direction, but we’ll believe it when we see it!

    • Actually, this is not correct. I attended a recent Eskom press conference during which de Ruyter was begging for private providers to provide electricity to the Eskom grid. Eskom is not dragging its feet. Mantashe is dragging his feet in lifting the 100MW limit imposed on independent power producers.

  • Respectfully-renewables in a years time is not the answer for right now and “ageing” plants are a myth. The ’70’s/’80’s “6-packs” (Duvha, Matla, Kriel and the 10 others in this cohort-totalling ca. 40+Gw) are quite capable of 60+ year lives-if properly maintained with the pre-planned/established life extension programmes for high-temperature components implemented. Eskom spent some R30bn. on the “come-back” projects for several smaller stations(Komati, Camden, Grootvlei and others) in the early 2000’s. Ample head-space for a properly managed transition from coal to renewables-noting that SA is a very high energy intensity nation so continuous base-load is unavoidable. The ANC’s biggest failing over the past 28 years has been its blind, rigid and ideological policies of cadre deployment, attempted transformation, employment equity and dismissal of long-term skills leaving Eskom on its knees From the veiled statements earlier in the year about bringing back “pensioners”, it was obvious that lack of competences was Eskom’s biggest problem. Only now is “consideration” (only that-not actual engagement) is being given to bringing such people (and others from “overseas”-cue the Cubans(!)) back. Many of the coal plant problems could be speedily resolved with a group of local specialists. Plus mentoring the younger technical teams. Only if/when the ANC actually starts taking the situation seriously will there be any respite from the disastrous situation SA finds itself in.

  • How long must we endure these politicians failures. Their lights don’t go off in their government estate, Bryntirion, in Pretoria. The DA led municipality in Tshwane is making sure the President and his team of leaches are unaffected. WHY? Can John Steenhuizen answer this question?

  • Stephen, I must commend you. Your writing is objective, and without bile or hysteria. I wish I could comment in the measured tones that you use. What is only hinted at is that Mantashe will always act a) in his own interests (that is how politicians survive and thrive) and b) in the interests of the ANC. This is why I concur absolutely with the last two sentences of your analysis.

  • I do not agree that the various problems being experienced are due to individuals in government, because it would mean that the decision makers(on various levels) have the authority to cause that. They do not. They have the authority to make decisions, but only if those decisions are in line with what the ANC wants/needs.
    Government is NOT acting for the benefit of the people. If it was its actions would have been coordinated and focused – as a collection – on improving things. Government is for the benefit of the ANC.
    This will change, but at the end it would have taken a lot of lives and money and effort to do so. We need people like those that spoke at the recent Defend Our Democracy conference to lead this change. I hope they do.

  • Stephen – I think we are looking for privatisation of generation – this will help supply and competitiveness – there will still be a government controlled distributor. The problem is the ANC struggle ideologically with anything they cannot control.

  • You’ve got to joking if you think the ANC is capable of solving our energy crisis.

    Their track record in everything they run is abject failure

  • reality is them that matter are not going to rely on these clowns ever sorting the national supply and grid. Even if they fixed/replaced generation, a large chunk of users don’t pay. It is a repeat of the 80’s and mainframe to distributed computing. One subsidisry leaves (goes solar and storage), the other subsidiaries share same cost but two subsidiaries still don’t pay. Two years time, another two subsidiaries go distributed because they would be stupid not to (service level and cost). By year five three subsidiaries are paying the full cost of the mainframe system and close down because they were too lazy and incompetent to see the horizon and sort themselves out.

  • You are right to say that “it is important not to lose sight of what could happen if only the rich have electricity” but that is in effect what is happening. It is only the rich that can afford the generators to keep their lights on. Private energy suppliers feeding into a national distribution grid does not preclude the grid from supplying indigent consumers with free or subsidised power. That is why Eskom’s distribution network must be separated from the generation network.

  • People need to understand how grids work. You cannot four times a day decide who gets power and who does not. It matters nothing that leaving me on grid means I feed back more than I consume if my two neighbors that have no solar are on the same connection. All that will happen is I will change my side so that I do not depend on this circus to keep business going. Their current strategy will succeed : by 2030 Eskom need only figure out how it supplies 20GW of power (to non-paying clients) rather than how it supplies 30GW. The cashflow problem at Eskom will no longer be a problem for the departed 10GW of self reliant consumers – other than by way of their tax bills

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