On working trips abroad I remind myself of a school science lesson, back in the 1960s during the earliest days of space travel, when our teacher explained why launching a rocket into orbit is easier than bringing it back to earth.
Unless extensive preventive measures are taken as the spacecraft re-enters the earth’s atmosphere, the combination of gravity, drag and friction makes it explode in a fireball.
Returning to South Africa from abroad similarly involves surviving re-entry into our politically dense atmosphere, with its combination of explosive forces. Instant immolation awaits any insight or analysis that isn’t sufficiently insulated against our resistance to critical examination and challenging perspectives.
For a rocket to survive atmospheric re-entry from space, reverse-thrust engines must reduce their speed. The equivalent, on returning from abroad, is the reverse-thrust impact of local debates and sensitivities.
A week has passed since my return from the sixth Regional Leaders’ summit held in our Canadian partner province, Québec.
[Our other provincial partners are Shandong (China), Georgia (United States), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Bavaria (Germany) and Upper Austria (Austria).]
This year the theme was “Energy Transition: Towards a Low-Carbon Economy” and, as always, it was an eye-opening experience, part of which I hope to convey without causing a national meltdown.
Québec was the ideal place for this summit, because it is famous for its shift to green energy before any other region in the world. Today 97% of its energy derives from sustainable sources. Québec’s energy is also among the cheapest in the world – costing a mere 25% to residential users compared with New York, Boston and San Francisco, and 50% less than the average of the G7 countries.
Efficient, reliable, cheap energy is one of the reasons why Québec is booming economically, attracting investment worldwide, resulting in its highest job-creation rate this century and the lowest unemployment rate in 40 years.
To be fair, Québec has what some might consider an unfair advantage – one of the world’s largest natural endowments of fresh water. Most of its energy comes from hydro-electric generation, although wind, biogas, and even solar are becoming increasingly important in the mix.
Québec’s early transition to “green” was not obvious a few decades ago, in an era when the switch to nuclear energy was gathering momentum worldwide. Québec’s nuclear lobby argued forcefully and convincingly that hydro-electric energy (generated in the far north) would have to be transmitted across 34,479 kilometres of transmission lines, through 533 transition substations and countless more distribution substations, across one of the world’s largest provinces, and beyond. This would cost too much in ongoing infrastructure construction, maintenance and leakage.
Nuclear, on the other hand, could generate energy at decentralised points, close to the urban centres of greatest consumption. In the medium term, nuclear would be cheaper, more efficient and sustainable, the argument went.
Looking back, the victory of Québec’s green lobby (which seems a no-brainer today) was fortuitous. A huge factor in its subsequent success, however, has been the exceptional efficiency and competence of the province’s energy utility, Hydro-Québec TransEnergie.
It is a state monopoly, similar to Eskom. So why did things turn out so differently for them?
First, the Canadian constitution, unlike South Africa’s, enables provinces to generate and distribute electricity themselves. This creates inter-provincial competition between state utilities, which helps drive efficiencies and bring down costs.
Hydro-Québec relentlessly pursued a single mandate – to provide the world’s cheapest, cleanest, and most reliable energy to households and businesses in order to drive economic growth and jobs.
And it has the added incentive of being able to sell electricity at a profit outside its borders, once it has met its own demand.
Its focus remains unwaveringly on satisfying its customers, without goal deflection.
Here, in South Africa, our national monopoly, Eskom, often talks the same language as their provincial Québec counterpart, but walks in the opposite direction.
Although Eskom’s formal vision-and-mission statements focus on its energy generation mandate, its primary goal is to be a “profit centre” for government, and ensure what it deceptively calls “racial transformation” in its staff composition and supply chain. In reality, this has become a moral-sounding justification for wholesale cronyism, corruption and fiscal looting.
It is bizarre that, despite all the evidence that supports this thesis, those who expose the BEE hypocrisy are still labelled “racist” in order to deflect the debate from where it should be.
What’s more, although Hydro-Québec and Eskom have roughly the same generation capacity, Eskom employs approximately 42,000 people – double its Québec counterpart.
The result of these factors is that electricity prices in Québec fell and remain low, while Eskom’s continue to skyrocket.
In this context, it was interesting to compare their respective CEOs’ salary packages. The latest available figures reveal that Brian Molefe, former Eskom CEO, earned a total package of R9.4-million per annum in 2015, while (two years later), his counterpart at Hydro-Québec, Eric Martel, took home an all-inclusive 2017 salary of R7.8-million (at today’s exchange rate). And if Martel resigns, his contract stipulates that he gets no additional payout at all.
Another big difference is the response of the two utilities to the private sector’s entry into green energy generation. Despite the enormous success of Hydro-Québec, the private sector is actively encouraged to expand green energy resources through sun, wind, biomass and natural gas.
In contrast, as Eskom’s electricity became less reliable and more expensive, the private sector’s move to meet the growing energy demand has often been resisted, as our national government sought to protect Eskom’s monopoly, rather than encourage competition and bring down prices. The obvious motive for defending coal-based generation is to enable Eskom to repay its huge debt, and (no doubt) to defend the various BEE interests in the lengthy coal supply chain.
And, despite what many think, nuclear remains firmly on the table in South Africa. On returning from Québec, I was flabbergasted to read that Mr Loyiso Tyabashe, Eskom’s Senior manager of nuclear new build, reportedly stated that the country’s nuclear planning programme was continuing.
“We always follow policy and cannot just be driven by media reports… Until nuclear is not part of the plan we must continue with front-end planning,” he said.
Miraculously, in the face of all this official resistance, the private sector has still managed to turn South Africa’s green economy into one of the fastest-growing in the world. This is a profound achievement, and serves the interest of economic growth, jobs and genuine broad-based empowerment.
But the irony and tragedy of this success is that it enables the middle class to rapidly adopt cheaper green energies, because they can afford to install the necessary infrastructure in their homes, while the poor have to increasingly rely on Eskom’s increasingly expensive electricity.
The consequence, inevitably, is broad-based black impoverishment in order to protect narrow elite enrichment. There are many other examples (such as the collapse of the national Department of Water and Sanitation) that show how the privilege of the politically connected is a powerful driver of broad-based black marginalisation.
Much of this manipulation, deception and obfuscation is facilitated by our toxic race debate, which dominated the media when I left for abroad, and again when I returned.
“White privilege” was the issue under discussion on both occasions.
Of course, despite the fact that the black middle class is now significantly bigger than the white middle class, and despite legislated racial preferencing in favour of black South Africans (both in employment and supply chains) over the past 20 years, the legacy of our apartheid past still haunts us.
But this phenomenon is not what the term “white privilege” describes. It implies far more than this.
“White privilege” is what I describe as a suitcase term that packs in much more meaning than is apparent from the outside. It derives from America’s critical race theory analysis, which is an off-shoot of Marxism. Just as Marx’s “labour theory of value” argues that the proletariat remains poor because the bourgeoisie is powerful and privileged, so critical race theorists argue that black people remain poor and marginalised because of “whiteness”. And, based on this point of departure, it is a small step (especially for the vast majority of people with minimal knowledge of theoretical nuance) to believe that black people remain poor and marginalised in South Africa because of whites.
That is a convenient way to avoid analysing the real reasons why we cannot grow our economy, improve education, and increase social inclusion. Scapegoating a small and shrinking minority enables people to avoid any personal responsibility for the far-reaching changes required.
Blaming “whiteness” is also a gift that keeps on giving, because no melanin-deprived person can do anything to change that fact. Within the parameters of the “whiteness” debate, they will always be judged by the colour of their skin, not the content of their character, nor the quality of their contribution.
When Eskom fails, because of corrupt practices dishonestly disguised as black economic empowerment, a racial scapegoat is very convenient. The downside is that it builds an impenetrable barrier against learning and applying the valuable lessons we could glean from our partners throughout the world.
There is no better way to kill our prospects than by deflecting our energies into a dead-end attack on “whiteness”, in order to avoid discussing (and actually doing something about) the real reasons economic freedom remains elusive.
Ever since I returned from Québec, I knew I had to write this analysis. I only hope I waited long enough, and insulated my argument well enough, to avoid instant immolation.
Because honest debate is what we need in order to face our enormous challenges. Dividing South Africans on the basis of race is a sure guarantee of failure. DM