South Africa is one of the countries worldwide that is hailed as having good policies and a powerful Constitution. These policies are largely centred on reducing the triple challenges facing South Africa’s people. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (Gear) had their phases and were implemented with each having its successes and failures.
However, the National Development Plan (NDP) is the only policy blueprint that is not reaching the majority of its targets. Failures of the NDP should be attributed not only to the government but to some civil society organisations and NGOs who always take the government to court and delay the implementation of the policies of the democratically elected government.
Notwithstanding the fact that, at times, these organisations do contribute to enforcing some checks and balances to our democracy, most of the time they are a stumbling block to the progress of South Africa. They are mostly a stumbling block because they mischievously use the courts of law to delay the implementation of strategic policies which would have taken the majority of South African people out of our ticking time bomb, which is our increasing youth unemployed population, and that 50% of our people live below the poverty line.
The immediate case to demonstrate what I am trying to bring forward is the energy debate in South Africa, where the government is finding it difficult to implement its policy (the Integrated Resource Plan, IRP) that was developed democratically using resources of the state.
Many NGOs and civil society groups are deliberately or unknowingly pushing the technical electricity generation debate to become more environmental and political, thereby ignoring the rightful engineering voice which by and large is more technical.
Though economists and policy experts are raising economically sound arguments regarding the energy matter, they are limited with regards to technical aspects of the energy sources necessary to give the baseload and system operability, among others. We must give thanks to Nersa’s vigilance in safeguarding the dignity of their engineering institution as well as sticking to the technical realities of energy sources that will provide South Africa with reliable energy that will assist the economy that has been shedding jobs for years.
Even though the debate continues with high emotions from environmentalists and politically motivated renewable energy lobbyists, economists and technical engineers on the other side continue with their vigilance in providing objective reasoning. Those of us who have experienced living in a developmental state are happy when the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) and its executives respect the views of engineers with regards to the energy transition.
The position taken by the DMRE with regards to the energy mix that will allow sources that will provide baseload supply and complementing of renewables by that baseload, provides a bit of hope that some leaders and departments will not compromise the economy due to pressure from external sources.
The position of South African engineers has been proven correct by many global experiences. The contemporary global energy crises have proven beyond reasonable doubt that a drastic shift from the baseload supply provided by coal is not an option for South Africa. That is particularly so if the replacement does not include a cleaner energy supply from other sources that will provide that baseload supply.
The world’s biggest polluters, who are equally industrialised economies, decided not to sign pledges at the recent COP26 that sought to dislocate their baseload supply as that will affect their economies. There is keen interest in the report to be released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in May and June 2022, where they will be outlining the role of nuclear towards net zero, including the work done on clean coal technologies as well as advancements in reducing the price of clean technologies.
A country that does not take its engineers seriously finds it difficult to prosper. Most of the developments and innovations we have today developed on the back of engineers. That is even true for South Africa as it has developed to become the most industrialised African economy on the back of advice of visionary and developmental engineers such as Hendrik van der Bijl, as documented by former statistician-general Dr Pali Lehohla in a recent article.
It is without any doubt that a leader serving in this current executive who does not listen to the views of South Africa’s experienced professional engineers will not solve the energy crisis of Eskom and that of South Africa.
Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe seems to be among the few who takes the views of the engineers very seriously. As such, he receives many insults from sociologists and medical practitioners who claim to be knowledgeable about the technicality of energy but in reality know nothing except insults, emotional blackmail and personalising government policies.
If these actions persist, South Africa must forget about energy stability. To achieve energy stability, we need coherence and suppression of the voice of non-engineers in the engineering space. There is no way that we can expect a medical doctor to tell us about the intricacies of a boiler in a power station to the extent a professionally trained engineer with years working with boilers would.
We must not allow a culture that will make our country mediocre. In Beijing, where I did my Master of Commerce degree, we were in a programme where government officials of China took us to SOEs and many government-led programmes. In those trips each section is led by the right professional and his/her expertise is taken very seriously by the political leadership.
That is why when a professional advised the leadership wrong, they would rather resign immediately because they understood that as engineers and professionals, misleading the political leadership might lead to the economic collapse of the country. That is why even the Chinese don’t take advice from non-engineers on a technical issue, unlike in South Africa, where our ministers are insulted by non-engineering fellows in an engineering debate.
South African commentators published in Daily Maverick and elsewhere, such as Richard Freund and Alex Lenferna, aver that the reason Minister Mantashe advocates for mixed energy including wind, solar, nuclear as well as gas and coal (using new technologies) is that he is pushing for the long-term use of fossil fuels. These critics are not aware or deliberately do not want to be aware of the technical aspects provided by baseload energy sources to the grid.
And until they understand that they are not engineers and that there are vital technical issues that should guide the transitions, their contributions in discourse need to be seen as such.
In addition, these commentators should be aware that the IRP 2019 is a government policy document, not a Gwede Mantashe policy document. Mantashe is just enforcing implementation of the policy. It should be noted that failure to consider these technical engineering aspects within the energy transition will be tantamount to committing economic suicide. DM