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