Govt to shed light on power-crisis plans

The government is expected to outline its plans to deal with the country’s electricity crisis on Friday.

Minister of Minerals and Energy Buyelwa Sonjica and Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin have called a media briefing for Friday on “plans for electricity generation in South Africa”.

This follows a three-day Cabinet lekgotla (meeting), which finished on Thursday, where the country’s electricity crisis and the rolling power cuts were a “priority” on the agenda.

On Tuesday, ahead of the Cabinet meeting, government spokesperson Themba Maseko said the country’s political leaders viewed the electricity blackouts as a crisis and were planning to “take charge and find solutions”.

“The impact of load shedding on the economy, citizens and the country’s image is regretted,” Maseko said.

“We are taking it as a crisis—the government is going to take charge of the situation and make sure a solution is found,” he added.

The January Cabinet lekgotla is normally a preparation for President Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation address, where the outcomes of the discussions are made known.

Maseko, however, admitted there was an urgent need to communicate the “concrete decisions” made at the Cabinet lekgotla before Mbeki’s February address.

Investment shortfall

The power problem began years ago, but Eskom’s calls for urgent investment to meet the demands of the fast-growing economy after the end of apartheid fell on deaf ears.

South Africans and foreign investors alike are left wondering how much of a priority restoring power will be as the African National Congress (ANC) now struggles with an internal crisis.

Mbeki lost the party leadership to Jacob Zuma in December, raising concerns Mbeki could become a lame duck before he steps down in 2009—when Zuma is expected to take over if he can defeat corruption charges in court.

Reinhard Cluse, a senior economist at UBS bank in London, said the government was serious about tackling the power crisis.

“Overall it’s a cost factor that manufacturers and any direct investor is taking into consideration. Reliable energy is an absolutely crucial problem that has been recognised,” he said.

But Eskom has said it expects power supplies to improve only by 2013 as new plants kick in, potentially setting back expansion plans by power-hungry mining firms in the world’s biggest platinum and number two gold producer.

“There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment,” said Sanlam investment management analyst Stephen Roelofse.

World Cup

The doubts extend to what the shortages will mean for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Tourism authorities fear the power cuts could harm South Africa’s prospects for earning huge amounts of cash from the influx of visitors.

On Monday, the power cuts left hundreds of people trapped mid-air in cable cars at Cape Town’s landmark Table Mountain for hours.

“The stadiums may have all the most wonderful generators in the world to broadcast the games,” said Michael Tatalias, chief executive of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association.

“But will people come ...if they know they will be going back to hotels and guest houses with no power?”

There are more immediate concerns on the streets.
Motorists risk their lives moving through traffic intersections without the red, green and yellow lights that normally bring order.

Johannesburg’s fancy Sandton City mall, a symbol of the country’s economic boom, is also feeling the supply squeeze.

Hair salon manager Elani Kirstan tries to keep business going by putting customers on chairs along the mall’s main passageway for trims and cuts under better lighting.—Sapa, Reuters

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