/ 13 April 2023

The perplexing electricity minister, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa

Kgosientsho Ramokgopa 45
Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa. (Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Most people scoffed when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in February that there will be a minister of electricity. I must confess I didn’t. Being the glass-half-full person I think I am, I thought “okay, maybe this can work”. Then I saw Kgosientsho Ramokgopa’s credentials and the glass got a little fuller. He boasts an impressive CV with superb formal education training. 

And, let’s not forget, the man can bust a move

What has he achieved so far in his new job? As I type this, the country is at stage five load-shedding again and barely managing to stave off stage six. If his job was to solely focus on load-shedding, he may have succeeded with at least one day at about the time of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ attempt at a national shutdown.

Some coal stations operated at higher-than-normal efficiency and an Eskom statement at the time read, “Load-shedding will be suspended, where possible, over the weekend and varied between stages one and two for other periods.”

It has only been just over two months, but Ramokgopa’s time at the helm is slowly draining my cup. 

Where it all began

The announcement of a new electricity minister seemed to take other ministers by surprise. I guess the first red flag must have been Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe initially saying the new electricity minister would only be a “project manager” — but then doubling back by calling him a capable human and someone he was keen to work with. 

There also seems to be some confusion about who Ramokgopa actually reports to. Does his work fall under the public enterprises department and Pravin Gordhan where Eskom lies, or does it fall under the energy department of Mantashe? 

I think it will be really tough to succeed in such a situation where people have such polarising views on Eskom, renewable energy and dirty coal. 

Then there was the whole debacle with the president placing us in an electricity state of disaster in February and then that being withdrawn last week. 

Ramaphosa believed the state of disaster was the way to remove bureaucratic obstacles standing in Eskom’s way as the country grappled with load-shedding. After potential legal challenges threatened by various parties, the state of disaster was withdrawn. 

Mantashe said during an interview with Newzroom Africa that the electricity minister “has done the ‘most difficult job’ visiting 14 power stations in just one month in office”, something he and Gordhan hadn’t done. “No other minister has done that.” 

I’m not sure whether Mantashe means this in a mocking sense or whether he means the visits will help Ramokgopa understand what the problems are at the stations so they can actually be fixed. Simply visiting 14 power stations seems like a meagre achievement.

Strange statements

Ramokgopa has made some interesting statements since becoming the electricity minister. One of my favourites was when he said load-shedding will not be ended through an “act of God”, but by getting the units back online.

“So Easter is coming, irrespective of the amount of prayer that we put in, it won’t resolve load-shedding. Load-shedding will be resolved by getting the units back online. Load-shedding will be resolved by ensuring that we are able to improve the operational efficiency of these units,” he said. 

The National Energy Regulator of South Africa is this month due to begin the process of unbundling Eskom into three units — transmission, generation and distribution. Guess what the minister of electricity’s reaction was? He said it was not his priority for now and that he chose to focus instead on fixing load-shedding. 

He seems to have a flair for saying some weird things. One of the other odd things he said when visiting Kusile power station was that “the challenges that we’ve had here, these are technical problems, they have nothing to do with so-called corruption”.

Corruption at Eskom’s power stations has been well documented and range from corrupt tenders to fraud. 

On eNCA earlier this month, Ramokgopa questioned the use of solar energy and whether it has the capacity to end load-shedding. He noted that solar could not produce enough electricity during morning and evening peak periods. 

That notion baffles me because load-shedding is experienced throughout the day. So surely during the day, solar energy can be relied on so that other energy sources such as coal can be stored for the evening peak demands. But I’m not an energy expert, so I’ll stay in my lane. 

Ramokgopa also said the government is considering investing more in the coal mines so that Eskom buys better quality coal directly rather than from intermediaries. 

Things get interesting

Speaking about his visits to the power stations Ramokgopa last week, “Ageing power stations need investment to refurbish them to improve their performance and prolong their lifespans. This will require investment by the fiscus and/or the private sector.” 

We can gather from this that his preference would be to extend the life of coal power. But he was also clear that the cabinet would have the final decision.

But, hang on, there is a contradiction here. Mark Swilling, the programme coordinator at the Centre for Sustainability Transitions at Stellenbosch University, has argued that extending the life of the coal fleet would contradict a number of plans laid out for renewable energy and energy security. These include the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan for energy, where targets are noted for closing coal stations, the National Infrastructure Plan 2050, which prioritises renewables, the Energy Action Plan announced in 2022, which includes approvals for 30 gigawatts of renewable energy where no plans are noted to extend the life of coal plants and, last, our climate goals to reduce carbon emissions. 

Swilling also noted that if the cabinet were to go ahead with Ramokgopa’s plan, the money from the Just Energy Transition Partnership would be compromised. It would signal South Africa’s intent to stick with dirty coal and not pursue cleaner renewable energy.

Ramokgopa said other interventions are needed, such as investing in the national grid and ensuring the diesel outlays are maintained to run Eskom’s emergency open-cycle gas turbines. He also said the national grid had constraints, which meant that renewable projects could not go online. 

My cup is slowly draining and my faith in the electricity minister is waning, much like our energy availability.