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South Africa: In search of a silver lining in the load-shedding cloud

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Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA) – Electricity lines running through the Karoo. State-owned electricity company Eskom has been struggling to avoid load shedding across the country.

By Xola Pakati

Understandably the most despised phrase in South Africa at present is the term “load-shedding.” As forbidding amputees and corpses in civil wars, load-shedding’s victims are thousands of working people who are consigned into an already vast army of the unemployed as businesses slow down and others go bust.

This is to say nothing of traffic jam nightmares, other interruptions in the rhythm of social life and the accompanying phycological distress.

There are a complex of questions which the electricity generator, Eskom, and national government should advisedly clarify because this is evidently a classic no smoke without fire scenario. We must also search for the silver lining in the load-shedding cloud by turning aspects of the crisis into opportunities.

But first for the questions: why, for example, are the new Medupi and Kusile power stations still functioning less than their capacity; years after their completion and billions of rands (of borrowed money) later? What is being done to bring them to full functionality?

Also consider the fact that in November 2021, a pylon near Lethabo power station in the Free State plunged the country into stage five load-shedding after it was brought down by unknown persons. Eskom’s outgoing Chief Executive Officer, André de Ruyter, described the incident as a “clear … act of sabotage and I think we can call it as such.”

Then, in July last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa told the media that poor performance at Tutuka power station, Mpumalanga, and others beyond, was as a result of “deliberate sabotage by well organised criminal syndicates that are destroying [Eskom] and damaging our economy.”

He revealed that spares were being stolen and sold back to the power station. There was “ongoing theft of oil and damaging of equipment so that Eskom can continue to hire spares from private contractors.”

However, years after it was proffered, the nation is none the wiser about the sabotage claim. What is being done to roll back and defeat the sabotage? How much of it is carried out by Eskom staff and what does it say about choking levels of load-shedding? What implications does it bear on national security?

Lack of clarity to these questions fuels people’s frustrations not only because load-shedding increases national stress levels. Like other sectors of the economy, the energy industry has many competing commercial interests which impact and crosspollinate the political arena.

As the 2024 national general elections edge closer, we should take it as given that these interests will act in concert to secure greater political sway and larger commercial market share. Last week’s decision by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) to increase electricity tariffs by 18.65% suggests that for the hardnosed, the means justify the end. Desirous of extracting as much milage from the load-shedding crisis, political entrepreneurs have conveniently forgotten that NERSA is an independent regulatory authority and not a government department.

In their exploitation of the crisis, they may have launched the 2024 General Elections campaign well ahead of time and terms on favourable to them. It is one thing to increase electricity tariffs when the lights are on. It is quite another to do so when Eskom is a bearer of darkness, literally and figuratively. So, there is a case to answer and we must bear in mind that Eskom’s answers (or non-answers) are now political more than ever before.

And now for the silver lining. Provided that we revitalise our capacity and commitment to communicate with the nation, draw appropriate lessons and take the requisite measures, load-shedding carries some opportunities. Experience has taught us that the economic sabotage to which President Ramaphosa and De Ruyter referred is not only limited to Eskom.

During the COVID-19 shut down, the country witnessed an unprecedented mauling of railway and other critical economic infrastructure. Who was behind the destruction and why? Why were the law enforcement agencies conspicuous by their absence? Answering these and other questions provides us with ample opportunities to address problems where there is clearly a need of solutions. But the answers may potentially help the nation to point out the dark hands behind the fires responsible for the smoke from which the country is suffocating.

There are also strategic opportunities to build the country’s research, technological development and manufacturing capacity in the renewable energy and related sectors; which augers well for re-industrialisation, employment creation, poverty reduction and possibly reducing the price of renewable energy.

Africa has an abundance of the sun; a competitive advantage alongside our membership to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). We should think about a series of strategic engagements with countries that are leading producers of solar energy research and equipment – China, with 340 gigawatt (GW), the United States: 102.9 GW, Japan: 78.5 GW, Germany: 62 GW and India: 57 GW. Another leading solar equipment producer is Canada.

Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality has commenced discussions with some industry players in these countries. We intend to build the research, development and manufacturing capacity in renewable energy so that we can break the vicious cycle of the developing world as mere consumers of technology and finished goods.

As a municipality we are already deploying traffic officers in intersections across the City to manage traffic congestion. This overstretches the capacity of our traffic service. The country would benefit from a nationally coordinated deployment of a system of volunteer traffic guides and, where possible, assisting small businesses to manage revenue losses. This could be done in the context of the District Development Model.

Lastly, it is critical that South Africans approach the problem of load-shedding as one nation and not as members of competing political parties, tempting as this is. We simply do not need such a distraction because perspective and proportion may be as elusive as the solutions themselves.

Pakati is executive mayor of the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality, chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council and deputy president of the South African Local Government Association.