‘Dangerous and mad’ – Not everyone’s sold on Ramaphosa’s electricity minister and another State of Disaster
President Cyril Ramaphosa had barely completed his State of the Nation Address when the DA announced it was going to court over the declared National State of Disaster on energy. The presidential speech to underscore his administration is at work to fix the economy left the opposition unconvinced.
An electricity National State of Disaster was what the governing ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) lekgotla had resolved in late January.
As its statement about that meeting said: “In solving the energy crisis, the NEC Lekgotla encouraged the President of the Republic to declare a National State of Disaster, which will also require that the ANC reconnects with our communities and society.”
When a National State of Disaster was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa during his State of the Nation Address (Sona) speech on Thursday, which talked about how “in a time of crisis, we need a single point of command and a single line of march”, the opposition benches burst into heckling.
And even before Ramaphosa concluded his 8,210-word speech, the DA had briefed its lawyers.
“A National State of Disaster under the guise of dealing with the load shedding crisis will similarly empower the ANC to abuse procurement processes and issue nonsensical regulations that have nothing to do with the electricity crisis. The DA will not sit back and allow the ANC to abuse the electricity disaster it created to loot and further abuse the people of South Africa,” said DA leader John Steenhuisen in a statement.
The possible declaration of the electricity State of Disaster had raised concern across business and civil society, given the extent of tender and procurement corruption in the two-year Covid-19 State of Disaster and lockdown.
Questions were also raised over what a State of Disaster would contribute towards resolving South Africa’s energy crisis, given the availability of existing legislative routes for emergency funding and procurement regulatory relief.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “The mooted National State of Disaster – ANC desperation or cynical public relations exercise?”
The ANC, however, welcomed the declaration of the State of Disaster in a “decisive” Sona.
“The President has made it clear that with the challenges the country faces, it cannot be business as usual… This State of the Nation Address is about seeing hope where there is despair. It is about showing a way out of these crises,” said ANC national spokesperson Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri.
And ANC alliance partner, the labour federation Cosatu, was upbeat, with a drop of caution. While the State of Disaster should be used to provide Eskom with all the necessary support, it said in a statement, the Budget later this month needed “to finalise the details of reducing the Eskom debt by 50% and also empower the government to deal with the coal cartels that are hobbling the power utility with their corrupt tendencies”.
And that also applied to other Sona pledges, according to Cosatu: “What the Sona said is useful only if the Budget funds it.”
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‘Undermining the rights of citizens’
Business Leadership SA (BLSA) was cautious, describing the State of Disaster as “concerning in the context of the overreach and undermining of citizens’ rights that occurred during the Covid-19 State of Disaster”, and the corruption in pandemic-related tenders. It seems the role of the Auditor-General to prevent a repeat is taken on guardedly.
“[The] BLSA believes that many of the above measures could be implemented effectively without a State of Disaster,” it said.
Intellidex analyst Peter Attard Montalto put it more directly, saying: “new centralised powers and routes for corruption” would have to be watched for when State of Disaster regulations are gazetted.
“The State of Disaster is dangerous and the new minister of electricity is mad and will create more confusion. The State of Disaster was unnecessary, against legal advice and against wishes of civil servants.”
The ANC may have applauded Ramaphosa’s announcement of a minister of electricity, but opposition parties dismissed this. If rails don’t work, would a minister of rails be announced? was the question. Ditto, a minister of pit latrines or minister of potholes.
But the ministers in the Presidency and of mineral resources and energy welcomed the Cabinet addition.
“This minister is almost like a project manager of the crisis. That is the correct approach,” Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe told the SABC in a televised interview immediately after the Sona.
Creating a new ministry is, of course, also a neat governance sleight of hand to solve a political conundrum.
Mantashe was a key mover behind Ramaphosa firstly not resigning in the wake of the recommendation for an impeachment inquiry over the Phala Phala forex scandal, and then at the December 2022 ANC elective conference.
But Mantashe’s widely perceived pro-coal stance — his critics talk of his coal fundamentalism — meant shifting Eskom into his portfolio as per the ANC conference resolution would have troubled sectors across business, academia, engineering and other professions.
Similarly, ditching Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who has been among Ramaphosa’s most loyal supporters, would have been tricky.
No names were mentioned as to who this minister of electricity could be. Nor were timeframes given on when that announcement — and a Cabinet reshuffle — would happen.
What was said was that over the next three years the Presidency and National Treasury would figure out how to restructure and rationalise government. In many ways that would end the Ramaphosa presidency how it started — with the reconfiguration of the state, a priority he raised in his first speech as president in February 2018.
Putting the Presidency and National Treasury in charge rather than Public Service and Administration as was initially the case effectively continues their cooperation already established in Operation Vulindlela in October 2020.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Ramaphosa moves to tame structure and size of public service”
And it continues the concentration of power in the Presidency, with the minister of electricity joining State Security and the ministers of women and the Presidency alongside various structures on climate change, red-tape cutting, Presidential Employment Stimulus, infrastructure investment and more.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “South Africa a step closer to a super Presidency after Ramaphosa’s master class in consolidating power”
Crucially, Thursday’s Sona came after a PR build-up of various brochures outlining how 2022 Sona commitments were met, the achievements of getting young people into job opportunities under the Presidential Employment Stimulus and how the justice, peace and security cluster had contributed to better prosecutions, anti-corruption and pro-whistle-blower steps, and more.
Clearly aimed as a Sona to show his administration at work, Ramaphosa talked about roads, dams, bridges being built, and moves to ensure effective ports and rails for goods and passengers. The monthly R350 Social Relief of Distress grant is again extended — details would be announced in the Budget alongside the Covid-19 small business bounce-back loan scheme rejigged for protection against rolling blackouts.
But as Ramaphosa invoked South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, as part of his call to everyone to do their bit for South Africa — in stark contrast was the unprecedented presence of armed balaclava-wearing security forces on the floor of the House.
Called in by the National Assembly Speaker, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, an ex-defence minister, in terms of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act at the end of a rough and raucous 45 minutes of EFF disruption, it reflects not the social compacting call to action to resolve South Africa’s problems, but a picture of securitisation and the protection of elites.
And that’s something to watch out for in South Africa’s constitutional democracy. DM