President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the media at Eskom's Megawatt Park offices in Johannesburg. Picture: SEBABATSO MOSAMY/SUNDAY TIMES
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the media at Eskom's Megawatt Park offices in Johannesburg. Picture: SEBABATSO MOSAMY/SUNDAY TIMES

It is almost a month since President Cyril Ramaphosa cut short a working trip to Egypt, citing a need to get home and deal with the crisis at Eskom, which had again plunged the country into darkness.

Though the move to stage 6 load-shedding, which involved removing 6,000MW of demand from the system, was unprecedented, it was a strange decision considering that power cuts have become a feature of SA life for about a decade.

The decision had the potential to create the impression that Ramaphosa had somehow found the magic wand.
Thankfully, he was not so ambitious in his promises.

With industry due to ramp up production, the country is expecting the worst

Having kept journalists waiting at Eskom’s Megawatt Park headquarters for hours, the statements that followed lacked in substance and the press conference will be most remembered for a vague reference to potential sabotage. There hasn’t been an update on that since.

“Management has given us an assurance they are trying to stabilise the system ... from December 17 to January 13, we should not be in a position to have any form of load-shedding,” Ramaphosa said after that meeting.

Not exactly a promise, so Ramaphosa may have some wiggle room to deflect accusations that he hasn’t kept his word. But what is a fact is that January 13 is Monday and load-shedding has returned.

While questions need to be asked about Ramaphosa’s advisers for putting him in this position, deputy president David Mabuza’s accusation that he was “misled” is intriguing. It would be interesting to see what his namesake, Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza, who was acting CEO at the time, will make of that.

With industry due to ramp up production, the country is expecting the worst. South Africans cannot help but assume that Eskom and the government have not come to grips with the crisis at the utility and the sense of despair is understandable.

So as we enter 2020, Eskom is again casting a long shadow over the economy, at a time when institutions from the World Bank to one of SA’s top four banks, Nedbank, are cutting their growth forecasts. Depending on the length and intensity of this latest round of load-shedding, even those estimates may prove to be on the optimistic side.

One only needs to look back at this time in 2019 to see how costly the power cuts are for SA. They were one of the factors behind GDP contracting in the first quarter of 2019 by the most since the outbreak of the global financial crisis a decade ago.

At his press conference in December, Ramaphosa accused Eskom of lacking a sense of urgency. Well, we need more than a bit of urgency from his administration. There are temporary steps that can be taken to alleviate the problem and keep industry running, but that is seemingly less important than factional and ideological battles within the ANC.    

Independent power producers, which already have green energy projects which feed into the grid, have called on the government to lift restrictions which prevent them from providing the system with the surplus energy they already generate.

Mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe has been repeatedly called on to unblock regulatory hurdles that prevent businesses from generating their own energy which would relieve demand on the national power grid. But as has always been the case in solving SA’s energy crisis, red tape and political interest stand in the way of progress.

While the country sits in darkness, the government is only just starting with a request for information process that seeks to discover what emergency power solutions the market can offer, and at what price.

It is not dissimilar to action initiated by the Development Bank of Southern Africa in 2015, which received submissions but did not go much further.

As the government simply retraces its steps since the last power crisis, and continues plodding along without the requisite speed, one cannot help but fear the country is in for more of the same.