The government’s attempts to resolve the energy crisis are in themselves creating another crisis — a credibility crisis, not dissimilar to that experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The reasons are not hard to find: the off-message comments this week by Energy Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa on South Africa being “forced” to shut the Komati Power Station, for example, are not only damaging in terms of those who had committed to financing Komati’s repurposing, but undermine public confidence and trust.
The fact that the government’s broader communication efforts are not getting much traction — mainly because they’re often geared towards technical briefings riddled with alienating language rather than accessible explainers — doesn’t help.
So, not only are communities in the dark when it comes to the energy supply; they’re also in the dark when it comes to understanding why there are problems with the energy supply.
Earlier this month, the non-profit agency Mobilize ran a series of focus groups among working-class communities in Johannesburg, the West Rand, eThekwini and uMgungundlovu as part of its Energy Comms campaign, to assess community knowledge and sentiments about the energy crisis.
Ramokgopa came out of the research process badly, with a distinct lack of faith in the minister’s ability to provide or consistently explain a lasting solution.
And that was before Komati.
Asked whether the minister’s appointment would improve the government’s ability to solve the energy crisis, respondents’ comments included: “Nothing will change. He’s not really here to end load shedding — he has said himself that he is here to try to end load shedding. We don’t need someone who says, ‘I’m here to try to fix the problem’ — we need someone who will fix it.”
A resident from Clermont in KZN responded: “In my opinion, the minister of electricity doesn’t know his work. He has been given that position so that they [the governing party] can push corruption. That position was not necessary.”
A resident from Kliptown in Gauteng said: “There will be no change since they are always ‘changing’ — and yet nothing changes. They are all the same. Nothing is going to change.”
Another Kliptown resident said: “It’s not going to change anything.”
Energy Action Plan? What’s that?
Perhaps ironically, the Energy Action Plan (EAP) — the lodestar which is supposed to guide Ramokgopa’s work — is also suffering from a credibility crisis. That’s partly because very little is known about the fact that it exists, and even less is known about its implementation.
Many of the participants in Energy Comms’ focus groups in Gauteng and KZN did not even know there was an EAP. Beyond that, they stated quite definitively that government did not have a plan of any name — because if it had, it would be communicating about this and updating society on its progress.
In some focus groups, participants were aware of some of the key elements of the EAP — for example, the consideration of renewable energy options and the negotiations that had taken place to buy electricity from neighbouring countries. But they did not know that these steps had been taken as part of implementing the EAP, and that progress was therefore being made in making the EAP happen.
Talk about lost opportunities to show government leadership.
When asked if they knew about the EAP, the response from three Umlazi residents was illuminating: “There are no plans. They would have addressed the crisis a long time ago if they had one,” said the first. “Government has no plans. If they did, they would have solved these problems a long time ago,” said the second. And a third: “This [the EAP] is new to us. If they had plans, we would see some of them implemented.
‘There is no energy crisis’
There’s even cynicism about whether there is in fact an energy crisis, or whether the crisis has been manufactured.
“I am aware of government’s plans to bring in new electricity sources, but the issue is that we don’t have an electricity crisis in South Africa,” said a resident of Mofolo in Gauteng. “They are making it look like we do, but we don’t. Why can’t we just use more coal to generate electricity? There is no electricity crisis.”
This lack of knowledge and associated increase in conspiracy theories is, in part, a result of the government’s shortcomings in explaining the EAP in plain language, and in local languages that the majority of people can understand.
When asked how they would like to be informed about energy policies and government plans, participants mentioned the following:
- Community workshops/sessions/events;
- Door-to-door educational and informational sessions;
- Provision of brochures and flyers and pictorials;
- Use of radio and TV dramas including during ad breaks;
- Social media; and
“They should do door-to-door activities for people who don’t have TVs,” said one participant.
“They should take us to workshops and make it practical so that it doesn’t become something which they say up there, and we see it happening without having been informed. They need to teach us,” said another.
A third said: “I think government needs to work very closely with non-profit organisations and come closer to the communities to give more information.”
Across the focus groups, participants also asserted that they did not think the EAP would be effective in tackling the energy crisis as different stakeholders and people in charge were not communicating effectively — nor did they have a similar outlook regarding the plans that are in place.
As one eThekwini resident put it: “With the action plan, it is as if they are speaking different languages. Someone in government is saying that by the end of the year we would have ended electricity cuts. Someone else is saying we should brace ourselves for a couple of years of load shedding. And yet all these people are looking at information from the same cloth, which is the EAP — but what they are telling us as the community or as a society is different.
“Even the political principals are speaking different languages. The minister of electricity is saying one thing, Gwede Mantashe is saying something else, Fikile Mbalula is saying something else. I don’t know where Mbalula fits in all these things, but he finds himself relevant to speak about this thing. So can you imagine where society is in this?”
‘Just transition? Where’s the justice?’
The third piece in the energy puzzle, alongside Ramokgopa and the Energy Action Plan, is the “just transition” process that is supposed to help shape our energy future.
Here, too, there are fundamental credibility problems among the residents we spoke to.
For instance, there was a widespread view that the term “just transition” is misleading and inaccurate. Similar views were expressed in an earlier round of focus groups about the phrase “load shedding” to describe blackouts.
“They started with Covid; they are selling these big names to us,” said one resident of Georgetown in KZN. A fellow resident said: “They have started to be creative. They always come up with these names. They are now planning something. When you see things like this, just know that it’s just a plan and they want to find a way to misuse funds.”
Where there was an understanding of the concept of a just transition, this was generally accompanied by deep cynicism around the actual intention.
As one eThekwini resident put it: “If it’s a ‘just transition’, that should mean justice for all. But is it? At what cost is this ‘just transition’ coming to the person who’s unemployed? At what cost are we going to find ourselves sitting with this ‘just transition’, telling us that they’re transitioning from coal to nuclear energy, and at what cost to the country?
“I think these people are just throwing English at us to make themselves feel relevant and seem smart. They’re playing us for a fool, actually. And I wish our communities can express this thing via their votes next year.”
One last comment on the prospect of a just transition in our lifetime: “We are still waiting for health for all, which is something that they have been talking about for years. So we will wait and see how it goes. We’ll see if there’s a ‘just transition’.” DM