Government and ANC concern about Eskom’s honesty with the public regarding the severity of the electricity crisis has led to a partial communications blackout.
Last month, at a lekgotla, the ANC national executive committee (NEC) and, later at another, the Cabinet decided to take over some of the utility’s communication responsibilities to try to control the information that is released publicly and, especially, what they believe should be kept secret.
A Cabinet source said the government was worried about how Eskom’s communications were affecting the government negatively.
“They are saying things and they are not realising how it is affecting us politically,” the source said.
He said the government was struggling to “align Eskom’s message to our political message”.
“We are concerned. We can’t have a state entity that is communicating a different message to what we are communicating,” he said.
The plug has not been pulled completely on Eskom’s communicators – “very technical” communication would still be left to the utility because it had the expertise to explain that.
A presidential infrastructure co-ordination commission report that was delivered to the NEC lekgotla raised concern that the “quality and reliability of information from Eskom is a major problem”. The report added that “an interministerial committee is addressing this with Eskom leadership”.
According to that report, Eskom’s “public communication has been poor”, but the document expressed hope that “this will now change with a Cabinet member assigned to manage and lead all communication on Medupi”.
The Cabinet source said Tuesday’s press statement, issued by the acting director general of the communications department, Donald Liphoko, about the fears of a total electricity blackout, was the beginning of a government takeover of Eskom’s communications.
In the statement, Liphoko dismissed as a hoax reports that Eskom’s main grid could crash and plunge South Africa into darkness for more than two weeks. He assured citizens that the country’s energy problems were receiving “priority at the highest level”.
‘Certainty in communication’
Another ANC source said it was not that Eskom was being stripped of its right to communicate with the public but that there was a need for the utility to “implement certain levels of predictability and certainty in their communication”.
But Liphoko denied that Eskom has been muzzled. “There is no decision that government is going to communicate on behalf of Eskom. Our position is to support the communication efforts of Eskom.”
But, he said, the government “reserves the right to speak on national matters. It’s not only to give direction to the entities, but also to the nation.”
He added: “We said, ‘Guys, whatever Eskom communicates
must be aligned with the work of departments’. There are policy decisions that need to be made by department of public enterprises, department of environmental affairs, etcetera. It needed someone to co-ordinate.”
Independent power producers likely to boost the grid
The ANC national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla and, later, a Cabinet meeting had energy solutions on their minds, not just in the short term but also for the future. Urgent action, such as enlisting the services of independent power producers and speeding up the process to finalise the appointment of a nuclear energy supplier, should be implemented immediately.
For a long-term energy solution, the government, taking its directive from the NEC lekgotla, appears to be resolute on speeding up progress on the nuclear procurement. Russia tops the list of prospective suppliers.
“We will have a nuclear supplier by the end of the year,” one NEC source said.
“We told [energy minister] Tina [Joemat-Pettersson] that she has to fast-track this thing.”
What’s likely to raise eyebrows though is that the process “kicks off as early as next week” and might just be a closed method of procurement, according to sources.
Enoch Godongwana, the chairperson of the NEC’s subcommittee on the economy. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)
An NEC member, who is also in the Cabinet, said the party’s lekgotla pushed the government to find a quicker solution to assist the embattled Eskom. The government agreed to have independent power producers complementing Eskom by next month, in addition to pushing for the completion of Kusile and Medupi power stations.
A presidential infrastructure co-ordination commission (PICC) report delivered to the NEC lekgotla decried the high costs of sourcing power from independent producers.
The document said lessons learnt from independent producers included that the cost of this source of energy “is higher than Medupi”: the first bid window exceeded costs by 122% and the second bid window was higher by 48%.
Other concerns with independent producers were that “localisation of green energy projects is very low in spite of initial commitments by the industry and there was a funding model with very little foreign direct investment inflows and high level of debt raised in South Africa, but with half of the projects owned by foreigners,” according to the document.
The first NEC member said the government accepted it had no choice but to find money to finance these alternative energy projects.
The chairperson of the NEC subcommittee on economy, Enoch Godongwana, told the Mail & Guardian this week that, although there was a debate over independent producers in the ANC, there was consensus that temporary energy generation was needed.
He said no one was opposed to independent producers, “given the current Eskom balance sheet”.
“The question is, in the long-term period, will we have a deregulated electricity supply industry? And what then will Eskom’s role be?”
Godongwana said the ANC resolved that independent producers must be seen to be playing a complementary role to Eskom and not be a replacement.
“We are looking at [independent power producers] providing electricity for the next 18 to 30 months,” said Godongwana.
He stressed that the energy crisis was by far the most important issue for the ruling party’s leaders. The government has tasked the department of science and technology with looking for innovative ideas on producing more power. In the meantime, the government will increase the provision of gas and solar power generation.