Opinionista Alex Lenferna 23 May 2021

Time to resist manufactured load shedding crisis and Mantashe’s gas road to nowhere

Our government seems to be intentionally deepening the load shedding crisis to force through a slate of expensive, corrupt and polluting projects. South Africans should resist this threat.

The conventional wisdom says that load shedding is a result of incompetence and mismanagement at Eskom. The story goes that poorly run and badly maintained power plants are the key reason we are stuck in the mess we are in. 

While that’s certainly part of the picture, it misses a vital element of why we are stuck with our load shedding crisis. A darker and larger underlying driver is that the government is likely intentionally failing to stem load shedding in order to create a crisis. It’s a crisis it is now using to push through expensive and polluting projects.

That reasoning might seem conspiratorial — however, a look at the history of load shedding shows that this is hardly a new story. Rather, it has been part of our load shedding saga from the very beginning.  

As a 2019 Special Investigating Unit report revealed, the first load shedding was likely a manufactured emergency. The report unearthed evidence that the 2008 load shedding crisis may have been partly engineered by Eskom employees who ignored repeated warnings that coal stocks were running low.

The report concluded that the “self-created” emergency was then used as a pretence to sign R14-trillion in overpriced coal contracts. That’s arguably one of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of South Africa. 

As we are plunged again into load shedding, this week Eskom signed on to a coal contract which doubles the price of coal supplied to Duvha power station. Doing so has smoothed the way for Seriti Resources to buy up the mines supplying the power station and profit handsomely. 

Again, a shortage of coal supply is being used to sign overpriced coal contracts. As Eskom props up and subsidises coal corporations, it pleads poverty to workers, offering them effective pay cuts with proposed wage increases not keeping up with inflation.  

Writing on the wall

History is repeating itself, albeit with some variation. Rather than load shedding being created by employees ignoring low coal stocks, it is being created largely by government departments ignoring a shortage of energy supply and for years failing to take the necessary steps to address it.

The writing has been on the wall for years that Eskom was facing a shortfall in energy supply that would lead to deepening load shedding. What was also clear was that renewable energy was the fastest, most affordable way to bring on new supply and address that crisis. 

Yet for years Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe and his department have stifled renewable energy through red tape, delays, bureaucracy and sabotage. They have done virtually everything in their power to ensure that we don’t bring on new supply, thus condemning us to deepening load shedding.  

Now that load shedding has once again reached crisis point, the profiteers are coming out to take advantage. That corrupt profiteering is hardly hidden — it is happening all around us in plain sight. 

The prime example is the risk mitigation programme which was created as an emergency measure to procure new energy to address the load shedding crisis. The big winner, which was awarded the lion’s share of new power, is the Turkish Karpowership company which produces powerships.  

Powerships are expensive and polluting, so are typically a short-term solution fit for failed states and regions hit hard by natural disasters. What’s more, the Karpowership company has been embroiled in corruption scandals in both Lebanon and Pakistan.  

The tender process that gave us the expensive and polluting powerships programme also looks deeply flawed and corrupt. It was rigged and then rerigged to favour powerships. The result is a disastrous R200-billion contract which could lock us into expensive and polluting energy for 20 years.   

The project is an example of “grand corruption”. Those are the words of DNG Energy CEO Aldworth Mbalati, who is suing Mantashe and the department for allegedly engaging in blatant corruption in the rigged procurement process, including trying to solicit bribes. 

The Big Gas heist

The powerships are terrible in themselves, but they may only be the foot in the door for a bigger play that Mantashe is trying to orchestrate. As energy experts have highlighted, the powerships are being used to open the door to a broader gas strategy as the ships will kickstart a local supply and demand chain for risky gas projects.  

If you’re an oil and gas corporation, that might sound like great news, but if you’re wanting to create a sustainable and affordable energy future for South Africa, it’s taking us in exactly the wrong direction. Even the world’s most influential energy body thinks so.  

On 18 May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a vital report showing the steps the world needs to take to transform its energy in line with the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping warming from rising above 1.5°C.

The report showed that “for emerging economies heavily dependent on coal power generation… the bulk of their transition will be straight from coal to clean energy” not coal to gas. The reality is that gas, once considered a bridge fuel, is a bridge to nowhere.

Mantashe is trying to take the country on a gas bridge to nowhere, and not just when it comes to the electricity sector. He is also trying to lock the country’s homes and families into polluting gas appliances. 

A smoker in every home 

When it comes to home appliances, Mantashe is using the argument that because the electricity supply is not reliable — a crisis he more than anyone is most responsible for — we therefore must start a mass roll-out of gas for cooking and heating homes. 

Again, this is going in exactly the opposite direction of where we need to go. The IEA report shows that for better energy security and to tackle climate change, the world must be moving to electrify appliances and make them more efficient, not locking people into risky gas. 

Gas appliances are not just an economic and climate risk either. More and more evidence is showing that gas appliances are incredibly damaging to our health. They are putting a lie to the misleading industry label of “natural gas” being clean.   

A recent Australian study showed that the health impact of having a gas cooktop in your home is roughly equivalent to having a cigarette smoker puffing away in the corner, and accounts for about 12% of childhood asthma cases.  

Mantashe seems hellbent on bringing asthma and pollution into our homes, rather than addressing the energy crisis we face and unlocking renewable energy so that we can have access to an affordable, reliable and clean energy system. 

Act before it is too late

It doesn’t have to be like this. A different, much better energy future is possible. If we unlocked South Africa’s vast renewable energy potential, our country could be a world leader, creating millions of jobs, and building the energy system of the future. 

That is a core premise behind the Climate Justice Coalition’s campaign for a Green New Eskom, which is calling for a rapid and just transition to a more socially owned, renewable energy-powered economy. A homegrown, green industrialisation could help transform South Africa.  

On Africa Day, the coalition is releasing a new booklet detailing its vision for a Green New Eskom. It will also outline its popular education and mobilising strategy to help ensure such a future is not scuppered by a corrupt old guard that prefers polluting patronage and economic stagnation over desperately needed innovation, job creation and transformation.

The saga of suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule shows that those benefiting from tender corruption will not step aside easily — and the energy sector is probably the biggest cash cow in the country. 

Regardless of whether load shedding is intentionally engineered or simply the result of ineptitude, what is clear is that our government has failed us. If we are to avoid being condemned to deepening climate chaos and decades of more energy dysfunction, we must act before it is too late. DM/MC/OBP

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  • Thank you Alex for a superb insightful article. Trouble is it confirms all my suspicions that Mantashe is another Ace Mgashule. His ‘dithering’ regarding fast tracking renewable energy sources to fill the power generation gap has been (almost) comical, as has been his handling of mining rights in SA. At first I presumed the BS imposition of load-shedding was preparing the ground and buying time for cadres to form ‘power generation intermediaries’ to skim billions off renewable energy companies. I was wrong. He was lining up the Turkish power ships for his personal enrichment of billions for the next 20 years.

  • Interesting and insightful article. However, your theory about the reasons for load shedding in 2008 is not accurate. As early as 2004, Eskom briefed its then advertising agency to create demand-side management campaigns to educate South African industry and citizens to reduce electrical consumption. The reason for this was that Eskom had projected that its ability to generate enough electrical power would not be sufficient by 2009. This was due to the total lack of investment in infrastructure as dictated by the government of the day. This state of affairs was acknowledged as a serious oversight by Thabo Mbeki, and he apologised for it. The situation became more severe than projected as load shedding commenced in 2008 and not 2009. I know this to be the truth as I was personally involved in creating the campaigns. Incidentally, none of the campaigns ever saw the light of day. And the reasons for that may make a more plausible conspiracy theory than your R14 trillion story.

    • An interesting perspective Meirion. The theory I am putting forward is not just my pet theory, but is based on the report by the Special Investigative Unit. Nonetheless, regardless of whether that is the precise reason behind the 2008 loadshedding, we need to act on what is causing it now.

  • Good analysis. But you say “we must act before it is too late”. Agree totally – but how do we as Joe Public act? What can we do?

    • Thanks Bruce. I had thought I had hyperlinked the act now to go through to our Green New Eskom campaign page, where we list ways to get involved. Seems it wasn’t, but we lay out some actions there at GreenNewEskom.org.

  • It was around 2000 when I became aware the there was an impending power shortage. Engineering News had a columnist , Terence Mc Hoy I think, who wrote a column detailing what was to happen. It did

  • Gov/Eskom misjudged the economic growth pre-2000 and instead of commisioning additional capacity decided to scale down. Tutuka, eg. was running 1/6 units. It was rumoured to be deliberate to ease Tina Joemat ea. Russian nuclear station. Gov is still pulling the same punches. Sickening.

  • A programme to stop this should become a national programme of action of all with the future of the country at heart.

  • None us WANTED to change. electricity was easy because ours was underpriced back to 80’s.

    Then power failed and increases came. geysers now solar, stoves now hobs, space heaters now gas and we added solar and batteries. Rational not green choices to (1) hedge cost (2) have some independence.

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