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‘Unclear’ how state of disaster will solve South Africa’s energy crisis

Image: Jairus Mmutle - GCIS


Researchers question move that grants government extraordinary powers

South African energy policy experts have questioned the raft of measures unveiled by president Cyril Ramaphosa last night to address the country’s energy crisis, which will grant the government extraordinary powers.

Ramaphosa (pictured) declared the country’s unprecedented frequency of rolling blackouts a national state of disaster with immediate effect in his 9 February State of the Nation address.

“The energy crisis is an existential threat to our economy and social fabric,” Ramaphosa said. “Our most immediate task is to reduce the severity of loadshedding in the coming months and ultimately eliminate loadshedding altogether.”

Ramaphosa said the state of disaster, gazetted the same day, will enable the government to provide concrete support to ailing businesses in the food production, storage and retail supply chain. These actions, he said, include the rollout of generators, solar panels and uninterrupted power supply technology.

Ramaphosa also said he would appoint a minister of electricity to work with national electricity utility Eskom. However, he did not name the person who would get the job.

South Africa is grappling with an ailing power network caused by an ageing fleet of coal power stations that regularly break down, rampant corruption and vandalism, and a distribution system ill-equipped to handle new generating technology, such as solar and wind.

The past three months have seen rolling blackouts implemented to save the grid from failing—known as loadshedding—intensify to unprecedented levels, with power cuts experienced for 10 hours a day or more.

‘Stop planning and start doing’

However, many of the country’s energy experts are not convinced that Ramaphosa’s measures are going to solve the problem.

Monique le Roux, senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, says a state of disaster is not necessary. She says it is “unclear” how it will fast-track the measures needed to solve the crisis, such as the publication of a clear power-purchase plan for the country, which could have been prioritised already.

“The feeling is definitely that the government should stop planning and start doing,” she told Research Professional News.

As for the new ministerial post, le Roux said its success will “wholly depend” on who gets the role and the freedom they will have to implement reform—which is questionable given the state of disaster declaration.

“Whether the new minister of electricity will truly have the scope and authority to make the necessary tough choices is already debatable in light of the fact that a state of disaster has been declared and that ultimate responsibility now lies with the minister of cooperative governance,” she added.

Political analyst Everisto Benyera of the University of South Africa told Research Professional News that neither a minister of electricity nor a state of disaster were necessary.

He said there’s a risk that declaring a state of disaster could lead to a repeat of what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the extraordinary powers and funding mechanisms instated under a state of disaster led to widespread looting of government funds.

Indeed, he said, the question was not whether the money would be stolen but how much of it would be stolen. “Whether the money will be looted or not is a foregone conclusion.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe