Power shortages on their way out, electricity minister insists to sceptical opposition
Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa’s doggedly upbeat take of ‘phenomenal improvement’ and ‘magnitude of strides’ in reducing rotational power cuts failed to spark in the House. But Tuesday’s statements signalled how the election campaigning is set to unfold.
The governing ANC on various platforms has started emphasising its achievements and talking about improvements and successes as its 2019 election manifesto reviews unfold as initial electioneering for the 2024 poll.
Tuesday’s statement in the House by Electricity Minister in the Presidency Kgosientsho Ramokgopa continued that messaging.
“Thank you for this opportunity to address Parliament to appraise the House and, by extension, the nation on the successes of the implementation of the energy action plan…”
Rattling off the megawatts, much of which he spoke of on Monday during his regular briefing, Ramokgopa said generation “continues to improve” to 28,883MW in October from 27,410MW in May, while unplanned breakdowns that scuppered electricity supply dropped from 17,369MW to 13,527MW over the same period, representing “an improvement… amounting to over three stages of load shedding”.
The hard reality that it would cost R390-billion over the next decade to ensure the transmission grid met demand was slipped in almost as an afterthought, after touting improved generation, the “positive indicator” of fewer unplanned outages and slippages, and the “success” of bringing Kusile power station units online.
And yet this R390-billion – in June the figure was R210-billion – is a tough ask in a troubled economy that’s lost R150-billion in tax income due to the rotational power cuts in the past year.
Long-term planning beyond talk of private sector investment seems unclear. Independent power projects in the Western and Eastern Cape are already unable to proceed due to the lack of capacity of a transmission grid that needs an additional 14,000km of power lines.
‘Minister without portfolio’
Opposition parties, which increasingly acerbically point to government failings, on Tuesday disagreed with the electricity minister’s bright outlook.
IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa bluntly pointed out: “The more people get off the grid, the less demand there is on Eskom, so, of course, load shedding reduces”, even though the move to rooftop solar and its accompanying tax breaks was for the rich, emphasising social inequality.
As “minister without portfolio, department-less, entity-less”, what did Ramokgopa do aside from public briefings and power station visits, asked Hlengwa, given the crime and corruption levels in not only Eskom, but the entire energy sector.
“Eskom is in trouble. Eskom is operating on the basis of bailouts. There is policy uncertainty, leadership uncertainty and leadership interference…”
Freedom Front Plus MP Wouter Wessels, said any extra megawatts were illusive – overall, Eskom’s energy availability factor had not improved and still fell short of the 60% target.
No reduction in the rolling power cuts would have been possible without households moving off the grid and Eskom’s purchase of 1,100MW from private producers.
“It’s surprising how excited the ruling party gets in a little progress,” said Wessels, adding that this was a repetition of 2008 when the rolling blackouts were reduced ahead of elections the following year.
DA MP Samantha Graham-Maré was direct in saying Ramokgopa’s “affability and a winning smile is not going to resolve the energy crisis”.
And while supporters of the Proteas and the Springboks were happy to see their teams shoot the lights out, she said, “Our energy crisis has not been solved. It has been merely stayed.”
Significantly more work lay ahead to achieve a stable, efficient and cost-effective energy sector compliant with climate change and just transition goals. As is the DA’s wont, Graham-Maré went on to tout the DA-run Western Cape’s achievements.
EFF MP Busisiwe Mkhwebane, the former Public Protector who was impeached by the House, delivered her maiden speech touting coal as baseload power and how rotational power cuts would not end as long as the ANC was in power. She was congratulated by her new colleagues.
Like Ramokgopa, opposition MPs also claimed evidence and facts for their statements. Parliamentary public enterprises committee chairperson Khaya Magaxa railed against the opposition and the “biased mass media” campaign waged against the ANC government.
Even if Ramokgopa were in the House to declare an end to rotational power cuts, it would still be opposed, said Magaxa.
“That’s the role of the right wing of this House,” he said, adding later: “The intention of the biased mass media is simply to convey that the ANC government has no answer to load shedding…”
The committee chairperson talked the same megawatts as the minister and ran out of time to finish his speech. But his contribution highlighted the other side of electioneering – smear and whispering campaigns and styling the governing ANC as the victim.
In closing, Ramokgopa said, “My presence here is not ornamental”, and outlined his impact on policy by ensuring delays in the planned schedule of decommissioning power stations.
It was “uncalled for” to attribute the improved electricity supply to election campaigning, the minister said, before again finding his spark: “We have turned the corner, but we are not necessarily out of the woods.” DM