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Civil society only buffer against State of Disaster excesses

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Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / African News Agency (ANA)President Cyril Ramaphosa said the State of Disaster over the country’s electricity crisis would be used to mitigate the social and economic effects of load shedding. However, the Covid-19 State of Disaster has shown how those with power profiteer by exploiting such crises to the detriment of ordinary South Africans, says the writer.

By Mametlwe Sebei

After increasingly louder calls from the top echelons of society, including the government, opposition parties, and churches, among others, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national State of Disaster in response to the Eskom crisis, under the Disaster Management Act of 2002.

This measure is understandably, but wrongly, welcomed by many, including those who are wary of the ANC government’s capacity and intention to tackle the Eskom crisis it singlehandedly engineered.

Eskom and the energy situation in the country is undeniably in a state of disaster. The relentless loadshedding, rocketing debt and punitive tariffs, have plunged the country, especially its working class and poor, into the worst energy poverty in decades.

Despite being elected on the mandate to end loadshedding and the incompetence, corruption and mismanagement at SOEs, under Ramaphosa, the Eskom crisis has reached depths short of collapse. Loadshedding has increased from 124 hours in 2018, to more than 3,212 hours in October last year; tariffs by 18.6 percent this year, cumulatively 800 percent since 2007; and total costs of servicing its R396.3 billion debt, amounted to R71.4bn last year and is expected to reach R179.9bn and R118.9bn in debt and interest rates repayments, respectively, over the next five years.

Everyone easily agrees that there is a state of electricity disaster and urgent solutions are needed. Understandably, many welcome the declaration of a state of disaster as not only signifying the seriousness on the part of the government to tackle it, but, importantly, providing a legal framework for emergency measures that are essential to end the relentless loadshedding.

But as Covid-19 taught us, the ruling elites never abandon their interests for the common good, even in emergencies. They exploit the crises of their capitalist system for obscene profiteering as people fight for their lives and survival. The widening inequality, massive profits for big corporations and institutionalisation of emergency measures into permanent ones, and highly exploitative work regimes have become a basis for the accumulation of wealth by big shareholders post-Covid.

The working-class and movements for environmental justice must oppose the phenomenon. We must be wary, especially when the people who have engineered the crisis ask for the extraordinary constitutional powers to tackle it.

We must ask: Is the presidential declaration of the state of national disaster the appropriate and most effective response to the disastrous state of Eskom? The state and its institutions, including the government, and the rest of social relations in a capitalist society, invariably serve the interests of the capitalist class and its various factions, political and corporate.

In this instance, it is clear this declaration is a brazen legal manoeuvre of the ANC government to dismantle every protection offered by the law; for communities protesting land dispossessions, environmental pollution, and poor corporate social investments; facilitate industrial-scale looting by extremely parasitic, mainly black tenderpreneurial capitalists in its ranks and ultimately, its sale of Eskom to imperialist corporate vultures glamouring for a private stake in it.

Section 27 of the Disaster Management Act 2002 empowers the minister of co-operative governance to declare a state of disaster in the event of disasters. The act, however, qualifies the powers with a provision that this can happen only when the laws and contingency arrangements in the state do not adequately allow the Cabinet to respond to the emergency.

In his announcement, the president failed to clarify in what ways the legal framework has stopped the ANC government from procuring the generation of additional capacity that it knew was needed before 1994; or timeously fixing the breakdowns and maintenance issues behind the poor performance and declining energy availability factor of our power stations.

The only provision in the act that makes sense of this declaration is Section 27(2)(i) which invests in the minister, once the declaration has been made, the powers to issue emergency procurement procedures that will allow the government to procure services from private businesses, without following usual tender procedures in Eskom.

In a situation where the government has facilitated colonial-style land dispossessions, environmental degradations and pollution of many working-class and rural communities affected by mining and other big corporate developments, we must counsel the working-class suspicion and opposition to the further erosion of inadequate protections that the laws afford poor communities.

In addition to environmental protections, the emergency powers are more likely to also undermine requirements further for transparency and accountability in the tendering of services for coal and energy supply contracts at Eskom.

The measures are sinister when one considers that overwhelming evidence, including state regulatory reports, shows that it is corruption and non-compliance with environmental regulations and public procurement procedures that are responsible for the crises in coal mining, other corporate development projects and Eskom.

In 2007, like today, when loadshedding started due to Eskom’s capacity constraints, which the ANC by its own admission, had been warned about for more than a decade, the government rushed through the Medupi and Kusile projects, flouting public consultations and procurement procedures, to overcome the electricity crisis.

The projects not only failed to resolve the crisis, due to poor craftmanship, they also aggravated it. Irregular tenders pushed the costs of constructing the two highly polluting, coal-fired power stations, Medupi and Kusile, from the R69.1bn and R80.6bn approved by the Eskom Board in 2007, to an estimated R234bn and R226bn, respectively.

This is a total overrun in costs of more than R300bn, most of Eskom’s R400bn. For this, and the misappropriation of R700bn in capital spending since 2007, the working class and middle class bear most of the burden, not the big corporations responsible for supply-related corruption or those benefiting from special tariffs.

Working-class people and middle-class families pay the price, not only of increased tariffs but loadshedding too, due to Eskom having 25 percent less capacity after this astonishing amount had been spent.

The Energy Intensive Users Group of 25 major corporations, which consumes 40 percent of Eskom’s electricity, is shielded from devastating loadshedding and tariff increases. Many coal miners and independent power producers, especially those politically connected, like Glencore, Seriti, and Shanduka which swindle Eskom with extortionate prices, will use the doubling of sale prices and lack of transparency to milk Eskom worse than before.

The arrests of former Eskom executives are symptomatic of the scale of tender related plundering and looting, flagrant disregard for and inadequacy of the procurement procedures the government wants to water down further. The only viable alternative to the corporate and bourgeois ANC government state-engineered crisis is trade unions, community civics and climate justice movements defending public ownership of Eskom and fighting for its democratic control and management.

Unlike big corporate interests across Eskom supply chains, for the working class, Eskom is a public service provider. Its success as a viable publicly owned, enterprise is a life and-death question. It is the working class that bears the worst rippling effects of the crisis, that is, the rising cost of food and opportunistic and violent crimes.

It is the working class that is interested in ensuring a rapid just transition to clean and renewable energy. The working class bears the brunt of the ecological devastations of climate change, as it has no means of insulating itself from the worst of the impacts.

The devastation of poor households facing floods in Mpumalanga, and farmworkers dying from heat waves in the Northern Cape underline the need for a real emergency plan. Such an emergency plan can simultaneously combat load shedding, affordability and climate change crises.

For these, Eskom must lead a just rapid transition based on the social ownership of energy, democratic control and management of workers, communities and climate activists.

Mametlwe Sebei is a lecturer in the Department of Jurisprudence at the University of South Africa (Unisa)