/ 9 February 2023

Ramaphosa announces national state of disaster on energy

Cyril Ramaphosa 8319 Dv
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday announced a national state of disaster in response to the unrelenting energy crisis and said he was appointing a minister of energy within the presidency to focus exclusively on ending load-shedding.

The state of disaster was effective immediately. It was gazetted shortly before Ramaphosa delivered his seventh State of the Nation address (Sona) in which he conceded that load-shedding had brought South Africans to despair, but called on the country to summon hope that it could be overcome.

“[As] I address you this evening, in homes across the country, many people are suffering, many are worried, many are uncertain and many are without hope.

“The energy crisis is an existential threat to the economy and to the fabric of our society,” he said. “Our most immediate priority is to restore electricity.”

The need for a state of disaster has been questioned, including by government advisors, since it was mooted by the ruling party last week but Ramaphosa said it was necessary for the “strong central coordination and decisive action” needed to stem the crisis.

“The state of disaster will enable us to provide practical measures that we need to take to support businesses in the food production, storage and retail supply chain, including for the rollout of generators, solar panels and uninterrupted power supplies,” he said.

“Where technically possible, it will enable us to exempt critical infrastructure such as hospitals and water treatment plants from load-shedding. 

“And it will enable us to accelerate energy projects and limit regulatory requirements while maintaining rigorous environmental protections, procurement principles and technical standards.”

He said the auditor general would continuously monitor expenditure during the state of disaster to guard against the abuse of funding that became a defining feature of the much-extended state of disaster imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ramaphosa is expected to reshuffle his cabinet in coming days, but the announcement that he would name an electricity minister within the presidency, but leave Eskom itself within the public enterprises portfolio, takes away some of the suspense and signals that he wishes to limit the power of Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe. It also signals that Ramaphosa is planning to centralise more power in the presidency, after earlier bringing oversight of state security into his office.

Energy experts have increasingly called Mantashe part of the problem for his regressive championing of coal and stalling on renewable energy. But as a key political ally and chairperson of the ruling ANC, Ramaphosa cannot sideline him completely.

The president said the new electricity minister would assume full responsibility for overseeing all aspects of the electricity crisis response, including the work of the National Energy Crisis Committee, and work closely with the Eskom board and management.

“So as to remove any confusion, the minister of public enterprises will remain the shareholder representative of Eskom and steer the restructuring of Eskom, ensure the establishment of the transmission company, oversee the implementation of the just energy transition programme, and oversee the establishment of the SOE holding company,” he said.

Ramaphosa said there was no point in ruminating over past mistakes that have led to constant load-shedding.

“We cannot undo the mistakes that were made in the past, the capacity that was not built, the damage that was done to our power plants due to a lack of maintenance, or the effects of state capture on our institutions. 

“What we can do is to fix the problem today, to keep the lights on tomorrow and for generations to come.”

There would be no new plan to map a way out of the crisis, he stressed. Instead the state would double down to drive through five key measures announced in July, among them fixing Eskom’s coal-fired plants, fast-tracking the addition of more renewable energy to the grid, the extension of transmission lines to the country’s southern provinces to bring more wind and solar power online, rolling out rooftop solar systems and opening the energy sector to competition.

“We are not presenting new plans … All of these measures will result in a massive increase in power to the grid in the next 12 to 18 months,” he said.

In the interim, the government would help Eskom to secure funding to allow it to burn more diesel to lessen the severity of load-shedding. The utility would procure emergency power that can be deployed within six months, and investment would go into new transmission lines and substations, “especially in areas such as the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Western Cape”.

Ramaphosa said the unbundling of Eskom would proceed and the national transmission company would “soon be operational”. The national treasury would find a way of restructuring the power utility’s debt mountain of more than R400 billion. The Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill would be tabled in parliament later this year.

Ramaphosa turned from energy to water and transport as the next infrastructure priorities on his to-do list, including the restructuring of ports and rail company Transnet and the revival of the stalled Umzimvubu Water Project.

He recommitted to fighting corruption — with a special word of thanks to Chief Justice Raymond Zondo for the work of the state capture inquiry he chaired — and to building an effective state.

“Our greatest weaknesses are in state-owned enterprises and local government,” he conceded, before promising to press ahead with plans to clean up municipalities and bolster both the police and prosecuting services.

“Communities across our country live in fear for the safety of their families. This situation cannot continue,” Ramaphosa said.

He concluded his speech by calling on South Africans to believe that the country could come out the other end of its multiple crises or, as he put it, “difficulties by the tonne”, stronger than before, with less violence, poverty and unemployment, and with the vision of a land of opportunity restored.

“We must do all of these things, not only to overcome our immediate challenges, but to renew the promise of South Africa. 

“It is a promise that we have kept alive in our hearts and in our actions.”