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Public hearings on electricity sector overhaul bring out a plethora of socioeconomic problems

Public hearings on electricity sector overhaul bring out a plethora of socioeconomic problems
A Power To The People march to ANC offices in Cape Town on 25 January 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

From Eskom corruption, inaction and rotational power cuts, to unemployment, electricity thieves and tariffs — all were tabled during public hearings on the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill to reform South Africa’s energy regimen.

‘When you have to cook and there is no electricity, a woman has to face that. When you have to go fetch firewood, there are some challenges. Some of us get raped,” Faith Tintswalo Chauke told MPs of Parliament’s mineral resources and energy committee in Malamulele, Limpopo, in late September.

The devastating human impact of the persistent rolling power cuts could not have been put more directly.

Chauke, who represented a local women’s organisation, was one of the few women who spoke that day, and in other Limpopo hearings. But from many, the message was the same: “We are suffering.”

Later, a young man, who introduced himself only as Sydney, outlined a prepaid meter scam that affected residents who alerted Eskom.

“We gave [Eskom] meter numbers. After that they came back to us, they said we can do an audit because the meter numbers are not buying electricity,” the young man said.

Sometimes there were simply no answers.

“Electricity is very expensive,” said Thomas Nkuna at the public hearing at KaMaqhekeza, Mpumalanga, a week later on 2 October. “It makes it very hard for the poor and the orphans.”

Welile Mabila told MPs that the community where she lives has not had electricity since 2016, “We don’t know load shedding… We are pleading Eskom must also connect us.”

She, like other speakers, spoke of izinyoka, or electricity thieves, who install illegal power connections. “As people we are used to illegal connections, and they are part of our life.”

The parliamentary mineral resources and energy public hearings on the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill, a central piece in the energy sector structural reforms, began in the coal heartlands of Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

Introducing wholesale changes, the draft law:

  • Establishes a national transmission operator on the back of Eskom unbundling under a holding company;
  • Regulates wheeling, or how privately generated power is sold to the national grid;
  • Provides for new generation and new electricity infrastructure; and
  • Updates administrative matters like licences.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Long road ahead for electricity regulation bill, with public hearings set to last until December

Technical details were largely glossed over during public hearings, although Business Unity South Africa’s contribution at KaMaqhekeza did talk about definitions.

The concern that this draft law was the first step towards energy and electricity privatisation ran through the hearings.

In Malamulele, Thulani Baloyi didn’t mince his words. “This is the privatisation of the national strategic competency [to] leave all in the hands of a few rich…”

Or as Vusi Nkosi at the KaMaqhekeza public hearings put it, “Independent power producers seem to be working with the rich to make money… I suggest we allow Eskom to continue providing electricity.”

In Ermelo, Mpumalanga, a similar message emerged. “We are making a mistake… Why not build more generation capacity?” said Fanie Sakabato.

At the Bela Bela, Limpopo, public hearings, Zacharia Murudu said he would not support the draft law because it allowed the private sector in. “The private sector [aim] is to make profit… People can’t afford private sector prices.”

Together with concern over the Bill’s effective privatisation of electricity, apprehension emerged that public hearings were held at short notice without briefings.

“It’s not easy for us to get the document today and analyse it,” said Eric Baloyi of the Collins Chabane Chamber of Business in Limpopo. “We as businesspeople need to look at this… We are asking, could we be given time to sit down and analyse it?”

While copies of the draft legislation were distributed, it appears that few discussions were held before the public hearings.

Across the Limpopo and Mpumalanga Coal Belt, activists from Mining Affected Communities United in Action raised concerns about process shortfalls, from the short notice period to a lack of prior briefings which meant people were not fully prepped to participate.

Speakers also raised concerns that MPs were just electioneering — and political, given the attendance, even if silent, by councillors and municipal speakers at public hearings.

“We see you today… When you come to campaign and propose things, you should not disappear like water on the ground,” said an elderly Elsabet Matlase at KaMaqhekeza.

It was one of several occasions when committee chairperson Sahlulele Luzipo intervened — to explain the process, that everyone had the right to speak and, crucially, that the public hearings weren’t party political, but Parliament’s efforts to get public participation.

As he put it at the earlier Malamulele public hearings, “We never introduce people according to party because the work we are doing is not of political parties — it is the work South Africans sent us to do in Parliament.”

The public hearings on Monday wrapped up in North West and will resume on 24 October in Upington, Northern Cape. The hearings move to the Free State on 30 October, then Gauteng on 4 November, the Western Cape on 10 November and KwaZulu-Natal on 21 November. They will wrap up from 27 to 30 November in the Eastern Cape.

The Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill is unlikely to be adopted before Parliament rises for the 2024 elections, possibly as soon as March. The incoming post-election parliamentarians, however, can revive this draft law after the polls, widely expected to be in May. DM 

Names are spelt phonetically; it was not possible to verify spelling in person as hearings were followed online.


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