/ 31 January 2023

Fikile Mbalula: Use departments’ underspent funds to address Eskom crisis

The ANC wants to push ahead with shifting Eskom to the mineral resources and energy ministry. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The ANC wants the government to divert an estimated R200 billion in underspent funds from line departments towards speeding up Eskom’s maintenance and refurbishment programme.

The governing party’s national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla this week wants to push ahead with moving Eskom from the public enterprises ministry to the mineral resources and energy department  — in addition to declaring a state of national disaster over the energy crisis.

Addressing a media briefing on Tuesday after the lekgotla — whose decisions will be discussed at a two-day cabinet gathering starting on Wednesday — ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula said it had taken “decisive steps” regarding the electricity debacle.

After a presentation by Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, the lekgotla noted there would have to be a “reprioritisation of the already pressured national budget” to end load-shedding, Mbalula said.

This would entail redirecting underspent funds from departments to Eskom and to infrastructure projects, while consideration should also be given to restructuring and financing the state-owned power utility’s debt.

Mbalula said the “ad hoc” response to the energy crisis had failed and that the ANC wanted a coordinated approach to fixing Eskom and getting new generation capacity to the grid.

This would take the form of a centralised command centre in the presidency, as was done in response to Covid-19, using disaster legislation to speed up the process of releasing funds and cutting red tape around new power generation.

Mbalula said a presentation by Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan indicated that an additional 46 000 megawatts of power was required to address load-shedding “by the end of the year.”

The lekgotla also wanted the government to start providing incentives for solar rooftop panels for business and homes, and affirmed the ANC’s commitment to mixed sources of electricity.

In the short term, the lekgotla wanted the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) to hold off on the planned 18.65% tariff hike by Eskom, while the government should push ahead with emergency power procurement to mitigate the effect of load-shedding.

ANC deputy secretary general Nomvula Mokonyane said the recommendations on the state of disaster had been made on the basis of “material conditions” and that there was “not going to be a reckless approach” to doing so.

Decisions had been made in response to “the call across the country that there has to be an extraordinary approach” and were guided by “information and evidence” and interactions with a variety of stakeholders and civil society.

Mbalula said the state of disaster would help the government to “move with speed” and that the target of “getting this done by the end of the year can be even faster” by mobilising resources where they are needed for intervention, particularly when it came to Eskom maintenance and refurbishment.

“People with capacity” would be brought in to advise the command centre, as was the case with Covid-19.

“We can’t speak as if we are experts. We didn’t become experts during Covid. We left it to them. Our response to Covid was scientifically driven. Our response to dealing with load-shedding should be scientifically driven and informed by practitioners,” he said.

Mbalula said it was necessary to accept the extent of the crisis and act in a coordinated manner. “The ad hoc approach is not helping us. Denial that we are in a crisis is not helping us.” 

Mbalula said the call by the  Economic Freedom Fighters for a national shutdown over Eskom and to demand President Cyril Ramaphosa’s resignation on 20 March, was “not helping”.

“You will shut down what is left, and people will go back and be impoverished,” he said. “Leaders must act responsibly.”

Mbalula said those calling for a shutdown should remember how the July 2021 riots in KwaZulu-Natal had ravaged the economy.

He said Ramaphosa and his team in the cabinet had been given a “clear instruction” by the ANC and that there had to be “total focus” to “kill this load-shedding”.

He said the characterisation of Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe as a “fossil dinosaur” was inaccurate and served to “kill the debate” over energy.

“Our approach is mixed energy. We agree on low carbon emissions. We agree on a just transition. He [Mantashe] is saying we cannot do away with coal because of renewables. The two reinforce each other. That is where we are going,” Mbalula said.

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