In recent months, South Africa has been in the grip of its most severe energy crisis. Intermittent power cuts have progressively worsened.
In response, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a cabinet reshuffle late on Monday in an effort to curb the electricity crisis and other economic woes that plague the country.
In addition, two new ministries were established: The Ministry for Electricity and the Ministry with Specific Responsibility for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation.
Ramaphosa said the new electricity minister, Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, will focus solely on dealing with the crippling power cuts.
“The Minister will be expected to facilitate the coordination of the numerous departments and entities involved in the crisis response, work with the Eskom leadership to turn around the performance of existing power stations, and accelerate the procurement of new generation capacity,” Ramaphosa said in a statement.
Paul Mashatile was also announced as deputy president, replacing David Mabuza, who resigned in February.
The electricity crisis requires teamwork
Scheduled blackouts, known as load-shedding, have been imposed to help the country’s creaking coal-generated power system survive in the face of overwhelming demand.
Professor Anthoni van Nieuwkerk, a professor from the University of South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs, believes the resolution of the electricity problem in South Africa doesn’t lie in the hands of one person only.
“This is going to require teamwork and the team needs a team leader or a manager. And this is the reason why President Ramaphosa appointed Ramokgopa to undertake this,” he said.
Ramokgopa plans to visit every power plant in the country, discover the challenges and start solving them one by one.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
Ramaphosa admitted in an annual state-of-the-nation address that “we are in the grip of a profound energy crisis.”
“We are therefore declaring a national state of disaster to respond to the electricity crisis and its impact,” Ramaphosa said in the speech, which was delayed by opposition lawmakers trying to stop him delivering it.
The electricity network, operated by the debt-laden state energy firm Eskom, has failed to keep pace with demand.
The practical solutions Ramaphosa has in his sleeve include the rollout of generators, solar energy, and uninterrupted power supply units for businesses related to the food supply.
“Extraordinary circumstances do call for extraordinary measures,” Ramaphosa said in his speech.
South Africa last invoked the measure in 2020 to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an earlier interview with DW, Clyde Mallinson, a Johannesburg-based energy expert, said there would be no need for such an apprehensive atmosphere if Ramaphosa’s government had been proactive.
“I am afraid we are in a disaster terrain at the moment. It is almost like a war-like [situation],” Mallinson said.
“At this stage, it is really frustrating because many of us have been calling and predicting this crisis for some time and the message that we’ve had is: Do something with a degree of urgency before the crisis becomes a disaster.”
No alternative to coal
South Africa generates approximately 85% of its energy from coal. The national power utility, Eskom, can generate up to 45,000 megawatts per hour. Still, it has been unable to supply even 27,000 MWh, giving rise to power cuts or load-shedding that can last several hours a day.
The lack of proper energy management has meant that no significant supply alternatives exist, Mallinson argued.
“We haven’t put in enough new capacity in place to cover for the decline in the output of the coal fleet,” he said. “So, the coal fleet has been getting older and it hasn’t been declining linearly. It’s starting to decline exponentially.”
The crisis has taken too long to fix, said a South African economic analyst and senior fellow at the African Liberty policy think tank, Phumlani Majozi. “The whole issue began 16 years ago, and it hasn’t been resolved yet. It has been a distraction,” he told DW.
South Africans feel let down by their government, according to Majozi. Mismanagement and incompetence have compounded the energy crisis, he said.
“There is frustration and anger among South Africans brewing that this thing should have been resolved and it is the failure of our leaders.”
Businesses are suffering
The energy crisis has also raised the cost of doing business in South Africa. Households and businesses are now without power for up to 10 hours daily because of load-shedding. The lingering crisis is costing one of Africa’s leading economies hundreds of millions of dollars every day, Majozi said.
The tourism and hospitality sectors are getting battered, he argued: “There has been massive destruction to restaurants in the country, so the impact has been very much huge.”
Thando Makhubu, who runs a restaurant in Soweto, Johannesburg, says a power generator keeps his business afloat.
“We are fortunate that we have invested in a generator. But the costs of running Soweto Creamery have grown, because we need to purchase petrol on a regular basis,” Makhubu told DW.
A regional crisis
Eskom’s problems have sparked concerns across southern Africa as it sells energy generated in South Africa to its neighbors, including Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe.
Haggai Chifunda, who runs a barber in Zambia, says he has been losing clients because of power outages in the capital Lusaka.
“We are struggling to stay in this small business because of many hours of load-shedding,” he told DW. “I have been losing customers instead of gaining customers.”
Experts say that business owners like Chifunda and Makhubu may have to prepare for even worse conditions.
In South Africa, hospitals have not been spared some of the worst power cuts. Though medical equipment is largely unaffected by outages at the SK Matseke Memorial Hospital in Soweto, hospital manager Kgolo Matseke says there are other risks to patients.
“For example, we have our elevators that are obviously put onto the generators, which keep going on and off, which have also put patients in very dangerous situations. By being inside there and not being able to be able to get out,” Matseke told DW.
The frequent power cuts are seen as compromising in a country where the level of crime is high.
Shoquat Suliman, a security analyst who chairs a community policing forum in the Johannesburg suburb of Bramley, says citizens in crime-prone areas live in constant fear.
“People are scared to even use the roads at night,” Suliman told DW. “The intersection right behind me is one of the hotspots [where] people are getting robbed, getting mugged [and where] cars are being stolen at gunpoint.”
Majozi agrees that the crisis will likely endure and points out that few people agree with the government’s projections.
“People in businesses in general, they do not buy the idea that within a space of 12 to 18 months, we are going to see some improvement,” Majozi told DW.
Currently, only 11% of South Africa’s power comes from renewables, and that is mostly wind.
Majozi says that resorting to renewable energy sources to augment the current supply could be key to resolving the crisis in the long run. “Renewables is an opportunity,” he said. “We need to find a way to see how it can help our energy challenges.”
A government minister estimated earlier this week that the power cuts cost the economy one billion rands ($57 million) daily. The crisis is chipping away at Ramaphosa’s chances of securing a second term after next year’s elections.
Ramaphosa, 70, came into office five years ago as a reformer promising a “new dawn” after Zuma’s scandal-tainted tenure. But the record outages, wreaking havoc on the economy, which is now expected to grow only by a dismal 0.3% this year from 2.5% last year, have dented his reputation.
Edited by: Benita van Eyssen and Chrispin Mwakideu
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