Electricity Watch

Electricity crisis deepens as internal ANC battles rage

Electricity picture getting darker

Prospects for solving South Africa’s electricity supply crisis took a serious dip last week as ideological battles and the resultant policy confusion within the ANC and its governing alliance bubbled to the surface.

In the process, various government departments, state-controlled institutions and factions within the party and alliance became pitted against one another in public. As next year’s municipal elections loom, some strategies used in the run-up to the 1994 election also made a return

It all adds up to a rerun of the circumstances which caused the present crisis when implementation paralysis set in after the adoption of the1998 Department of Energy White Paper on Energy Policy. Ten years later, in 2008, the country experienced its first wave of electricity supply failures in the face of Eskom’s capacity having fallen by 37% from 37,6 GW to 24 GW between 1994 and then.

Heart of the problem

At the heart of the problem is the ideological battle over the question as to whether state enterprises should or could be privatised to improve service delivery.

Last week the National Treasury said the country is considering to either partially privatise Eskom or to put up some of its assets for sale in order to secure funding for the power producer and resolve an energy crisis.

Treasury Director General Lungisa Fuzile said government had revived the policy in terms of which the private sector could take a stake of up to 30% in Eskom's power-generating assets. He added that government’s ‘war room’ on energy had asked the National Treasury to prepare proposals to acquire private sector participation in Eskom and initial ideas included plant sales and/or shares in the utility.

Less than 24 hours later during a briefing ahead of the debate on her budget vote in parliament, the minister responsible for state enterprises, Lynne Brown, said, “I actually don’t really believe that we should have privatisation when it comes to basic services”, and that that was the ANC’s long-standing opposition to privatisation. 

Reuters also reported that “left-leaning elements of the ruling African National Congress and unions have opposed privatisation of Eskom, arguing it would lead to job losses and undermine efforts to expand grid access to more black South Africans”.

Castro Ngobese, spokesperson of the National Union of Metalworkers, said: “We don't support the privatisation of Eskom. It is a strategic company that has a key mandate to electrify the country. We don't believe it should be in the hands of the private market.”

The National Union of Mineworkers, an affiliate union of Cosatu and thus part of the governing alliance, said in a statement, “any intention whatsoever to sell Eskom or part of Eskom will be resisted. Eskom is not for sale”.
To what extent this dualism on the issue is affecting the ANC is illustrated by the fact that its normally outspoken secretary general Gwede Mantashe would only say that the party would comment once the proposal had been sent to the party for policy discussion. As late as November last year he said that privatisation of electricity supply was “not a panacea”.

Effect of indecision

How this lack of decisiveness on policy affects matters in practice, is illustrated by the reaction of the ex-general secretary of Cosatu, who said in his reaction to the Treasury’s statement, that he was “seriously concerned” the move could result in the “back-door privatisation of a basic public service provider”.

“It runs the risk of repeating the huge error made in 1997, when the government was planning to privatise Eskom and refused to make funds available for its absolutely necessary investment in new generating capacity.”

He also alluded to the fact that this situation of effectively doing nothing either way has led to the “terrible price” being paid in the form of the present supply crisis.

Old ghosts and contradiction

Back in 1993 in a substructure of the Codesa negotiating forum known as the Local Government Negotiation Forum and tasked with negotiating transitional arrangements for local government, others and I tried to persuade our ANC colleagues to abandon the strategy of non-payment for services. As MEC for Local Government in the old Transvaal Province I was critically aware of how it hampered attempts to improve services to people in black townships.

We were also concerned about unrealistic expectations from a new democratic dispensation that were being created. There were warnings that it could come back to haunt a future government.

Now, in the standoff between Eskom and communities in Soweto, it is reported that the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee says that electricity must be free because the ANC promised free electricity to people who needed it, and refers back to the 1994 elections.

With next year’s municipal elections looming, there seems to be, to some extent, a replay of that 1994 situation. It would seem as though the ANC’s Johannesburg region under the leadership of the Parks Tau, who is also the mayor of Johannesburg, is challenging the mother party.

The ANC of Johannesburg last week organised a protest march against the installation of prepaid electricity meters in parts of Soweto. The installation of the meters, however, is happening in terms of programme of national government to overcome the problem of non-payment.

But, in what might be a case of “once bitten, twice shy”, the spokesperson of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, Zodwa Madiba, last week reportedly said about the ANC-led protest: “The ANC is trying to deceive residents and they will not succeed. Residents know that the ANC controls Eskom and if they were really acting in the interests of the residents, they will simply change policies that govern Eskom.”

Eyewitness News reported a resident in the affected area as saying about the protest: “They are obviously doing this because of the upcoming elections; after that they are going to leave Eskom to deal with us.”

by Piet Coetzer

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