“The National Disaster Management Centre has consequently classified the energy crisis and its impact as a disaster. We are therefore declaring a national state of disaster to respond to the electricity crisis and its effect. We will continue our just transition to a low carbon economy at a pace our country is able to keep up with and at a pace we can afford, and in manner that ensures energy security,” Ramaphosa announced in his annual State of the Nation Address to parliament.
Ramaphosa said that the recurring power shortages posed a significant threat to the country’s economy and social fabric.
South Africa is classified as a Newly Industrialised Country (NIC), a level ascribed to countries which have managed to move away from primary-sector-based economies into more industrialised, urban economies. The country’s economy is now mainly driven by its tertiary sector, a key marker of its development.
"The crisis has progressively evolved to affect every part of society. We must act to lessen the impact of the crisis on farmers, on small businesses, on our water infrastructure and our transport network,” asserted Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa also shared that the government was working on a way to provide basic income support for those most affected by the energy crisis.
“Load Shedding” in South Africa
The country’s ageing coal-fired power stations have been unable to keep up with national energy demands. This forced SA’s electricity public utility Eskom to devise a load-shedding system that cuts power supply to various parts of the country for up to 12 hours a day, depending on the stage of load-shedding determined by the utility’s schedule.
The disruptions to power supply have proven fatal for some local businesses which highly rely on electricity, while some have had to resort to running generators, which significantly cut their profits, to provide electricity.
Consequently, the country’s unemployment rate, which already stands high at 33%, is expected to increase significantly by the end of the year. Economic growth is also expected to slow down.
Trains, which are the choice mode of transport for the poor and working class due to their affordability, no longer function as frequently as they are powered by electricity.
Water supply is also limited as a result of the power outages.
Additionally, the energy crisis has made South Africa less attractive to foreign investors.
South Africa’s energy crisis has been building up for years. Many experts and the general public have blamed the government for being slow to tackle the issue before it got to its current disastrous level.
In September, the country signed agreements with three independent wind power producers, as part of its Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) which first kicked off in 2011. The program, which Ramaphosa is a major proponent of, is intended to boost SA’s move to cleaner energy thereby, reducing its carbon footprint.
However, the power supply from the September agreements was not projected to be ready for at least another year and a half.
In the meantime, the country’s government and Eskom would have to amp up its efforts in procuring coal supply for its coal-fired power stations as well as ensuring their efficient operation.
Interestingly, Minister of Energy Gwede Mantashe claimed there was a “coal mafia” causing the disruptions in coal supply. However, officials claimed the power station failures were due to unplanned breakdowns.
Other identified reasons for the current crisis include criminal sabotage of power stations, corruption and mismanagement within the debt-ridden Eskom, and absence of regulations favouring swift action of private renewable energy providers.
Mantashe has openly expressed his preference for the traditional coal powerplants over renewable energy sources, and even delayed on signing off on some renewable energy deals for this reason.
What Will a State of Disaster Achieve?
A national state of disaster would give the government additional freedoms to take mitigating actions, including greenlighting emergency procurement procedures without having to deal with too much red tape.
According to local South African Press News 24, the State of Disaster is governed by the Disaster Management Act of 2002 which defines a disaster as:
"natural or human-caused occurrence which (a) causes or threatens to cause – (i) death, injury or disease; (ii) damage to property, infrastructure or the environment, (iii) disruption of the life of a community; (b) is of a magnitude that exceeds the ability of those affected by the disaster to cope with its effects using only their own resources".
Unlike in a State of Emergency, the government remains unable to temporarily modify any rights in the national Bill of Rights to fix the problem, and there is no time limit to the declared state.
The State of Disaster was deployed during the pandemic in order to enable health authorities respond quickly to the health crisis. However, there have been doubts that the legislation will see similar success for the ongoing energy crisis.
Ongama Ntimka, a lecturer at the Nelson Mandela University, shared the pros of the legislation in a video interview with Al Jazeera:
“In order to lead during the time of a crisis, you need to give the leaders a degree of latitude to be able to take bold decisions and also to act faster. In South Africa, being a democracy, that hardly happens… In South Africa, you’ve got too many interested groups that lobby against particular course of actions and in a country like ours where we are operating in crisis mode, you cannot afford to have some of the cumbersome processes that are there.”
In spite of that, Ongama admitted the danger of such a legislation: that it could give the government more reins for corrupt practices given its “credibility crisis”. He cited the president’s plan to carry along the auditor general as a sort of solution to that problem.
Also in the Al Jazeera interview, economic advisor to ANC Kenneth Creamer shared how the president’s plan to introduce a minister of electricity would help with the establishment of quick-build renewable energy alternatives both on a micro and macro level.
On the other hand, some are completely opposed to the state of disaster legislation. Democratic Alliance, the official opposition party to SA’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), said it would challenge the “state of disaster” in court, based on ANC’s alleged issuance of absurd regulations and abuse of procurement procedures during the pandemic.
The then Auditor General revealed his “frightening findings”, including the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) for 5 times more than the advised price.
The government consequently advised that those accused of corruption should resign and cooperate with law enforcement immediately.
This time around, perhaps President Ramaphosa’s inclusion of the auditor general from the onset and other measures he announced in his Thursday address will ensure corruption does not impede the efficacy of the legislation
Sources: Reuters, Al Jazeera, BBC