More power to greenfield thinking

If you were to contrast two extremes of United States politics, you could hardly do better than Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Trump owns sleaze and corruption, using the power of his office to enrich himself and his like, whereas AOC, as she is generally known, is leading a revolt against old (and corrupt) ways of doing things.

AOC, still in her 20s, has been a congresswoman only since January but is already a superstar, at least in part because she is a gust of fresh air in Trump-jaded Washington.

Where he epitomises the reactionary and tiny-minded, her vision is expansive. She emerged within weeks of taking office leading the Green New Deal (GND), an ambitious and as yet unspecified plan to tackle climate change head-on and urgently.

Critics have been quick to say such a plan is not affordable but GND proponents, turning the issue around, ask why we cannot free up sufficient resources to counter what is an existential threat to humankind. If sufficient funds could be found for World War II, or to bail out the global financial system after 2008, this reasoning goes, surely there is money to secure humanity’s future.

This could include, in the US’s case, for instance, returning to top marginal tax rates, which were 75% in 1939 and 92% in the early 1950s. Steep tax rates have been championed by AOC, who has argued for a 70% rate on all income above $10-million a year. In the GND environmental and economic justice would go hand in hand.

South Africa should be contributing to this debate but all efforts are concentrated on keeping the money-devouring Eskom alive. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s Budget would have shown fiscal progress, notwithstanding the sleaze and corruption of the Zuma-Gupta-Bosasa-McKinsey-KPMG-Bain and Company-VBS era, but Eskom has to be fed, by perhaps as much as R150-billion from the budget over the next 10 years, depending on what new tariff increases it receives.

We have spent hundreds of billions on the coal-fired cathedrals Medupi and Kusile but they are years behind schedule and plagued by design faults; where what has been completed falls over on an ongoing basis.

And if this is not enough, the Sunday Times reported this weekend that the Special Investigative Unit (SIU) is looking into the theft of R170-billion from Eskom, R139-billion of which is directly related to 11 contractors working on the power plants. The SIU did not provide a breakdown but, assuming the 11 are equally nefarious, that’s R12.6-billion each.

We also learned at the weekend that President Cyril Ramaphosa wants new powers for the SIU to get the stolen billions back. Critics of Medupi and Kusile have long suggested that a solution is to stop building the monsters, but others caution that this could lead to punitive legal action.

What the scale of the theft being probed by the SIU suggests, however, is that stopping work on uncompleted units is as necessary as it is urgent.

Eskom put its — and the country’s — future into just two megaplants, a handful of contractors and a single energy source, coal, one that is making the world increasingly anxious and which some of our banks will no longer finance.

It had not built a power station in decades but had no contingency plan, no plan B, and, apparently, no way of managing costs. That was yesterday’s way. Today we need to unshackle ourselves from our old thinking and liberate cleaner, cleverer ways of doing things.

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Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote.

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