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SA’s energy crisis deepens as Eskom challenges mount

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) – While workers rights must be respected, workers must be conscious of the damage caused by interruption in power supplies on the one hand and Eskom and government leaders must be more responsive to the demands and rights of the workers so as to reduce labour unrest, the writer says.

By David Monyae

South Africa is facing an energy crisis that has plunged the country into long hours of darkness as the energy utility, Eskom continues to implement load shedding. Just this September, the country has gone through 163 hours of stage 4 load shedding, 120 hours of stage 5 and 43 hours of stage 6 where 6,000 Megawatts of power is shed from the national grid.

Comments from the leadership

The Eskom leadership has explained that the power generation capacity of some of its key plants is severely constrained, which has resulted in the need to implement load shedding to protect the national grid and avert a possible total national blackout. South Africa has had recurring instances of load shedding since 2008, but the situation has deteriorated over the past two to three years, which saw Eskom implement stage 6 load shedding for the first time in 2019. There is even talk that the power utility may be forced to implement stage 7 and 8 should the generation problems persist. By the look of things, Eskom is a house in disarray.

Old infrastructure

Ageing power stations whose retirement is fast approaching, poor maintenance, constant breakdowns and operational failures, skills exodus, labour instability, mercenary consultants, and political interference are some of the factors that have undermined Eskom’s performance. About 13 of Eskom’s 17 power stations across the country have recorded an energy availability factor (EAF) of 60 percent or less in 2022 meaning that they only generate power 60 percent of the time. Five of the power stations have an EAF of less than 50 percent with Tutuka, one of Eskom’s biggest stations, being the worst performer only generating power 29 percent of the time.

Picture Credit: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko – A construction truck drives past the Medupi power station in Lephalele in this file picture taken April 2013.

The utility’s so-called big 10 power stations, which include Medupi, Kendal, Majuba, Lethabo, Matimba, Tutuka, Duvha, Matla, Kriel and Kusile, reportedly have experienced a 33 percent reduction in output over the past five years due to breakdowns and planned maintenance. The economic impact of load shedding is devastating. Stage 6 load shedding reportedly costs the South Africa R4 billion and millions of job opportunities. The energy crisis also led to the economy contracting by 0.7 percent in the second quarter of 2022.

It goes without saying that if the energy crisis persists unresolved, the government’s National Development Plan (NDP) will be dead in the water. All national development aspirations will amount to little more than words without secure and reliable energy supply.

Ramifications on the economy

The crisis undermines the government’s efforts at addressing the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality which will only get worse. Moreover, Eskom’s implosion presents a very real national security threat as public unrest of the kind seen in July 2021 or even worse if the growing disquiet over economic hardships induced by the energy crisis is not swiftly resolved. As such, urgent and drastic interventions are needed to address the energy deficit.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration has already made a number of proposals which the government will implement as it combats the crisis. The proposals are centred on expanding the energy generation capacity. Among the proposals is the revival of the renewable energy procurement programme which will see the procurement of wind, solar and gas power of up to 10,000MW.

The role of the private sector

Other measures include drafting in the private sector into the energy market, which will allow it to sell power to Eskom, allowing municipalities to procure power independently and appointing a new management team at Eskom. Improving the energy availability factor at Eskom’s power stations will be key to resolving the power situation.

However, the country’s energy deficit is not just a technical problem but political one as well. Part of what has caused Eskom’s poor performance is corruption. The utility got into questionable contracts and people of questionable merit and integrity were appointed to positions of leadership through the ANC’s infamous cadre deployment policy.

Ramaphosa came into power pledging to deal with the scourge of corruption that had engulfed government institutions even affecting state-owned enterprises such as Eskom. Therefore, it is important for the President to walk the talk on fighting corruption if his government is to stand a chance in turning Eskom around. South Africa needs a new energy strategy beyond the short-term band-aid measures that have characterised the government’s approach thus far.

Other key players

The government must lead an inclusive and multistakeholder-dialogue on the energy to come up with solutions that will advance South Africa’s energy security in a just and equitable manner consistent with the country’s national interest. Such an inclusive and broad-based approach will give the government the political capital and support it needs to take decisive action to address the energy crisis.

Moreover, there is need for a sense of patriotism among Eskom employees whose strikes have contributed to increased load shedding. While workers rights must be respected, workers must be conscious of the damage caused by interruption in power supplies on the one hand and Eskom and government leaders must be more responsive to the demands and rights of the workers so as to reduce labour unrest.

Monyae is the Co-Director of the University of Johannesburg Centre for Africa-China Studies.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.