Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUPPLIED
Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUPPLIED

If there’s one thing you can say about SA’s government, it’s that it’s adept at arriving late — when it bothers pitching up at all. In his address to the Mining Indaba in Cape Town this week, mining minister Gwede Mantashe epitomised exactly this characteristic.

Mantashe, sporting an ANC-coloured tie, uttered the words which many critics had been longing to hear: the government is looking to remove obstacles, so that companies and municipalities can generate their own energy.

Investors liked it, obviously, since their main concern is the predictability of energy supply. If companies can rid themselves of a reliance on the drunken uncle of state-owned entities, Eskom, life will be far more predictable.

And companies would face no restrictions on how much power they generate — but if they want to on-sell it, they’ll need a licence.

"This will help close the energy gap caused by deteriorating Eskom plant performance. Depending on the circumstances, the generation plant may only require registration and not licensing," Mantashe said.

Suddenly, it seems, Mantashe is all urgency — after months of dragging his feet on allowing new energy into the grid. But then, it is a crisis: Eskom will decommission three coal-fired power plants in the next four years, which will take a further 11GW out of an already constrained system.

But then Mantashe went on. He said the government had also taken a decision "to talk to investors to start a generating company outside of Eskom". This, he said would be a "security measure, as Eskom is grappling with all the crises and problems, we must have a fail-safe option of delivering energy".

This, it seems, would be a new state-owned company, or a public-private partnership. The devil will be in the detail. But creating a new SOE is a misdiagnosis of the problem.

Clearly, despite all the evidence, SA’s government leaders still seem to believe state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are the answer. This faith is remarkable since these SOEs have been acting like delinquent teenagers for years: hitting up everyone for drinking money, making excuses for where their pocket money has gone, and hanging around the house eating whatever they can, when they should be out earning their keep.

What we conspicuously don’t need is more SOEs. Yet it’s clear that as much as government might hear the messages about splitting up Eskom and hiving off parts to private sector companies, it doesn’t listen. Its instinctive hostility to business means it just doesn’t trust the market.

Nonetheless, Mantashe’s other initiatives are to be welcomed — even if they’re late.

It comes days after new Eskom CEO André de Ruyter warned the nation to expect increased load-shedding over the next 18 months. It was refreshingly candid. De Ruyter put up an impressive performance in his inaugural interaction with the public, saying that Eskom will no longer defer required maintenance, and will aggressively move to prevent the deterioration of its power plants.

It sounded, at least, like there’s a coherent plan — even if it’s a messy and painful one.

Let’s hope politics doesn’t trump rationality.

The fact is, the ANC-led government has never walked the talk — it remains to be seen whether it will act swiftly to implement the measures announced by Mantashe this week. Clearly there is much scepticism over President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ability to execute almost any plan.

But with this energy plan, Ramaphosa can demonstrate his ability to act. The nation waits — in darkness, no doubt, as the new normal of loadshedding takes hold — to see if he will.