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‘Mortgaging the country’s future is treasonous’

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Picture: REUTERS – South Africa must brace for another season of discontent and excuses for loadshedding by the government such as the lack of skills at Eskom and ageing infrastructure at power stations like Tutuka in Standerton, Mpumalanga, says the writer.

By Sipho Seepe

Dr Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe has Underdeveloped Africa’ has arguably become a gold standard for scholars interested in the politics of development.

Rodney’s thesis is that the continent’s lack of development must be traced back to its colonial past. Most importantly, Rodney argues that there is a dialectical relationship between Africa’s underdevelopment and Europe’s economic development. Rodney is equally dismissive of apologists of colonialism who readily point out the supposed benefits of colonialism such as road networks and healthcare systems that were brought about by colonialism. For Rodney these so-called benefits were self-serving. They are part and parcel of advancing the exploitative mission of the colonialists.

At its core, “colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profit to the so-called motherland”. Had Rodney lived long, he would probably have written a sequel to his book with a different title, ‘How African Leaders Underdevelop Africa’. Indeed, it does not take much to see how some of Africa’s leaders have reduced themselves to being pawns and useful instruments for the interests of their erstwhile masters. Rodney bemoaned the impact that colonialism has had on the psyche of African people. Expanding on his thesis, Rodney argues that “when a society finds itself forced to relinquish power entirely to another society, that in itself is a form of underdevelopment”.

South Africa’s enthusiastic acceptance of loans from European countries in exchange for committing to moving from coal is a case in point. This commitment comes with a huge price tag of plunging the country into intermittent periods of darkness. The irony is that these “benefactors” are meanwhile stockpiling coal to ensure their energy security. Britain has recently “approved the development of its first new coal mine in 30 years … The government expects the mine to run until 2049, just before its net-zero deadline comes into place”. For its part, France has backtracked from its “coal-free future”.

Faced with the prospect of rolling power cuts to households, the French government has issued a decree to resuscitate mothballed coal mines. The US is keeping its mines. In a functioning democracy, acting against the interest of one’s country would be considered treasonous. Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero warned: “A nation can survive its fools and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason within. For the traitor appears not a traitor – he speaks in the accents familiar to his victims, and he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men.”

The country’s acceptance of coal linked loans is tantamount to mortgaging the future generation into an inescapable debt. With the energy crisis set to deepen, President Ramaphosa’s upbeat New Year’s pronouncement has become hollow. His promises, which sound like a stuck record, have become meaningless. The past year was marked by more than 2,900 hours of load shedding translating to 121 days – double the 48 days in 2021. Truth be told, Ramaphosa’s ascendency to the highest office was marked by the return of loadshedding. Eskom is in worse shape than it was then. The economy is on its knees. Ramaphosa’s retort is to blame everyone except himself or his administration. The country was fed with one excuse after another. It was either sabotage, ageing infrastructure, lack of skills, lack of maintenance by the previous Eskom leadership, and so on until there were no more excuses. The excuse about the ageing infrastructure is just a ruse.

As Drikus Greyling of the Daily Investor (November 24, 2022) pointed out: “The age of a power station does not automatically result in higher breakdown rates and a lower EAF.” This was tested by comparing “the performance of Eskom’s Tutuka and Duvha power stations with two US-based coal power stations – Wansley and Scherer.” The US-based coal power stations are functioning well despite being commissioned almost at the same time, bar a difference of a few years, as the South African power plants. Duvah power station in 1980, Wansley plant in 1976, Tutuka in 1985 and Schere power plant in 1982.

The widely reported excuse that the previous Eskom management led by Matshela Koko did not do proper maintenance of the plant infrastructure has been debunked. Based on the financial records and annual reports, the Press Ombud, retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe, concluded that the reported statement that “an increase in the planned maintenance in 2015 was not sustained during Mr Koko’s tenure is not accurate and is therefore in breach of article 1.1 of the code”. Most importantly, Ngoepe also pointed out that the “statement that an increase in planned maintenance in 2015 was not sustained during Mr Koko’s tenure and that that led to a sharper-than-expected increase in unplanned breakdowns after his departure is unfair and in breach of article 1.1 of the code”.

With load shedding expected to be escalated this year, South Africa must brace itself for a winter of discontent. The IMF economic forecasts are damning putting growth at 1.1 percent. This is down from 4.1 in 2021. South Africans are unlikely to forgive the ANC come 2024.

Professor Sipho Seepe is a Political analyst