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Mineral Resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUMAYA HISHAM/REUTERS
Mineral Resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUMAYA HISHAM/REUTERS

I want to address a phenomenon and agenda that is epitomised by the mineral resources & energy minister but is shared among a substantial constituency and informal convergence of interest groups. These groups have a presence among all stakeholders, or “social partners”, particularly within business bodies, various unions and the political elite.

Rather than attributing this agenda to an individual, or personalising critique, I will henceforth refer to the “Mecon” — the Mantashe Energy Consensus or Confidence trick (it is a bit of both).

The Mecon agenda is not clearly defined, but there are common narratives — not particularly coherent but nevertheless persuasive and benefiting from a global context of uncertainties in the face of “post-truth” communications.

Broadly, it is characterised by a determination to monetise all SA’s fossil fuel resources — not just those already listed as assets, but those yet to be acquired — and ensure that most energy investments and development, including the public electricity system, are directed through megaprojects, including in a new nuclear venture.

Mecon narratives range from the imperative for climate change response being an exaggerated and money-grubbing greenie conspiracy in support of a neocolonial agenda to keep developing countries in a subservient position (as if “the West” or North needed carbon border tax adjustments to perpetuate this status quo), through to “white monopoly capital” being the ultimate driver of a shift to renewable resources, and to rationally highlighting the challenges of decarbonisation of our electricity system (often simplistically exaggerated) and the potential for the private sector to capitalise on such efforts to extract profits for transnational corporations (though this has been facilitated more by the failings of state-owned Eskom than any efforts to transition to renewable energy).

The appearance of “MEC” in the name I am giving to the current pro fossil-fuel agenda recognises it is not new, but rather a regrouping around the enduring minerals-energy complex — long identified as the primary foundation of power and wealth in SA. The Mecon is not a product of the ANC or a faction thereof, but rather a reconfiguration — an empowered and populist reboot of vested interests that has a conspicuous champion with great power within the governing party, as well as substantial support elsewhere (including AJ Ayuk's Africa Energy Chamber).


The Mecon can produce some artful rhetoric, invoking everything from local energy poverty to global inequality as justifications for short-term self-interest (masquerading as the public interest) and the overriding of democratic decision-making. There are also various science-based narratives, invoking real challenges involved in the necessary energy transition and the risks these pose for workers and for a reliable electricity system. These are repeated religiously, regardless of more rigorous and contemporary analysis showing how these challenges can be met without rebooting fossil fuel path dependency.

I encourage naming this loosely defined interest group in the context of what our cabinet recently approved as the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2023 for “public comment”. The word “draft” is not used in the document published in the Government Gazette of January 4. Also, in light of high-level representation of the Mecon in Doha during the COP28 climate negotiations and a raft of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, occasionally reflected in public decisions or pronouncements such as Russia’s Gazprombank being lined up to finance an attempt at resuscitating PetroSA.

This is not a critique of what is presented as a “plan”, but rather an appeal to consider what the document really is, behind the superficial and unconvincing framing as a planning document. Various experts have already noted extensive and fundamental shortcomings, but there is too little interrogation of its real purpose — what it is intended to achieve. Many supporting documents have been released that stakeholders will now examine in an attempt to make some sense of the “overall observations” intended to direct electricity system development, but submitting comments might only legitimise a disingenuous process.


It is my conviction that the primary intent of this “IRP” is to signal that the Mecon is alive and kicking, and determined to defy what has been emerging as a more climate-resilient and public-benefit electricity development pathway, such as in the recommendations of the presidential climate commission and in the modelling work undertaken under the leadership of Business Unity SA.

It is also implicitly renouncing investments in any way linked to decarbonisation, to seek opportunistic investment from beyond the somewhat-accountable public finance programmes and financial institutions that are turning away from expanding the fossil fuel “asset base”.

The Mecon has no interest in being clearly identified, or appearing in a manifesto that would be subject to scrutiny, because it thrives on vagueness and generalisation, attributing nefarious intent to opposing views and tapping into real grievances with simplistic promises — without any attempt to offer real solutions to energy poverty. However, this “IRP” document can easily be read as a proxy for such a manifesto.

I suggest this document should be officially set aside and the travesty of an IRP process suspended. The legal requirement for full and participatory integrated energy planning for the whole energy system — within which electricity only accounts for about 30% of total energy supply, but must do far more — becomes binding in April, and it is full integrated energy planning that is urgently required as the foundation upon which electricity planning should build.

This “update” of the existing IRP2019 offers nothing new to efforts to reduce load-shedding, instead constraining some opportunities to rapidly increase generation capacity, and effectively ignoring most risks, including climate, financial and transition risk. It will do no harm to set it aside as we commence a national integrated energy planning process, as provided for in the 1998 Policy and the 2008 Energy Act.

• Worthington, a researcher and volunteer with Project 90 by 2030, is a member of the Energy Governance SA network. He writes in his personal capacity.

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