/ 6 January 2023

Blackouts stalling economic growth — ANC

Load-shedding has been a disruptor for households and businesses across South Africa. (Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Load-shedding has been a disruptor for households and businesses across South Africa, particularly for small businesses that cannot afford to source alternative energy, human settlements Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi said on Friday.

“But, most importantly, some of them have decided that they look at the schedule of load-shedding to determine the hours of operation for their businesses,” she said.

Kubayi was speaking at the opening of the ANC’s dialogue on economic reforms and energy security, which was held after the closure of the second leg of the party’s 55th national conference

The dialogue was led by Kubayi, the head of the economic transformation sub-committee, and ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe.

Businesses battling

“Being a former minister of tourism, for example, I would know that events companies, people who are in the hospitality sector, are battling,” Kubayi said. “They have seen themselves navigate Covid and survive, now they are faced with the challenge of load-shedding.”

Kubayi cited how last week KFC had announced that it would be closing some of its outlets because of load-shedding. 

“Others would have seen, for example … some of the Wimpy stores not being able to pay their rent because paying for generators and diesel to run the generators is expensive. These are some of the things that are affecting us as society. That’s why, from the ANC’s point of view, we said we can’t continue in this manner without finding solutions.”

Women bear the brunt of the rolling blackouts, she added. “If you are a single working-class mother, you come home at 5pm, and arrive to load-shedding at 6pm, when you are supposed to prepare dinner for the children and help them with schoolwork … 

“Women are saying to us, ‘It’s also affecting us because gender-based violence is rife and when there are no lights on the streets … we fear for our lives.’ 

“The issue of energy security affects the overall performance and livelihood and lives of our ordinary South Africans.”

‘Not a coal fundamentalist’

In a brief address, Mantashe, the minister of mineral resources and energy, remarked on whether load-shedding was “an energy crisis, a baseload crisis, a thinking crisis”.

“Can renewables on their own resolve the load-shedding crisis? I don’t want to express a view,” he said, adding that he has “very strong views on this matter”. 

“While everyone believes I’m just a coal fundamentalist, I am not … I’m a very balanced energy thinker. I’m not an engineer but I think broadly about energy because I know that energy is a catalyst for economic growth and economic development. If you don’t have energy, you can’t grow,” he said, urging the panel to find solutions “because we can’t carry on like this”.

Jacob Mbele, the director-general in the department of mineral resources and energy, told delegates that there is no policy uncertainty regarding renewable energy. He pointed out, however, that implementation and construction of these projects can take anywhere between 18 and 36 months.

“You can imagine that, if you’ve got a plan that is going to change in less than that duration, that on its own is going to create policy uncertainty,” he said. “When you do long-term planning, the plan must be robust enough to be adapted for the changing conditions.” 

On the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), while “everyone talks about the IRP being outdated, those that have read the IRP would have noticed that the possibility of Eskom’s energy availability factor going below what was predicted was actually covered”, he said.

Planning key

Sampson Mamphweli, the director of the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University, who was on the discussion panel, said planning was critical to solve the issue of the country’s failing coal power stations. 

He noted how the IRP was the product of a robust planning process. “Since the publication of the IRP in 2019, the minister [Mantashe] has been implementing this quite well, in my view … introducing new generation capacity from renewables in line with the IRP.” 

The minimum renewable energy that the country has online now “is actually assisting us to avoid higher stages of load-shedding”, he said. “Load-shedding is basically because of the failing fleet … Some of these power stations have not been properly maintained in the past, so what needs to happen is basically renewal … while you continue with planning and introducing new generation capacity for renewable energy.” 

The energy plan announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in July last year opens up the energy space, he said. “I’m worried that the president announced this good plan but … then he left and what the country sees is rolling blackouts, so to the general society this plan is not working because we’re seeing stage 6 load-shedding … but, in the background, there is quite a lot of work being done. 

“Just at the high level, we’ve got seven work streams that have been created by the president and those work streams are hard at work looking at various issues in line with the president’s plan, which includes renewal of some of these coal fleets, the bringing in of new generation capacity, looking at what the role of small-scale embedded generation is, for instance, and what is the role of big battery-storage facilities.” 

‘Rethink’ energy transition

Panellist Bertha Dlamini, the founding president of African Women in Energy and Power, suggested that South Africa rethink its approach to the just energy transition

“We get the sense that South Africa is hastily almost wanting to be a leader in the just energy transition at a time when our economy is in dire straits. We are at an extraordinarily challenging place because of our fleet failing to meet the energy availability factor that would enable economic growth,” she said.

“And so it begs the question of how we are creating a just energy transition that is locally relevant and accommodates the context of our socio-economic status … We have seen reports that the global West is resuscitating their fossil fuel resources to deal with their energy crisis. 

“We have an energy crisis of our own that requires us not to be compelled or pushed by any other external powers to move away from our abundant resources and we should be bold to state that we require baseload from coal … to resuscitate our economy, to safeguard our economy.” 

There is a direct link between electricity sales and economic growth, she said. “We cannot be unclear or uncertain or give mixed messages about where we stand as a country.” 

Communities need to participate in value chains, as value-adding enterprises and as employees. 

“We should not be hasty to communicate a message that threatens employment in the coal mining sector, that threatens employment in the agricultural sector … We have to be very clear in our pronouncements to ensure that our communities are secure in that they will not be put at a disadvantage because they are already suffering at the stage of the economy they are in.”

Solving South Africa’s energy conundrum is not a short-term issue, said panellist and former Eskom chief executive Jacob Maroga. “It has to be what is our economic vision and that economic vision … must be underpinned by the energy vision … 

“We need to firstly acknowledge the nub of the problem — many reasons have been given: old plants, sabotage and maintenance … The economy is bleeding now,” he said. The  baseload coal fleet “still has value and longevity” but the “issue is budget, focus and execution”.