Forward to the Green Utopia

William Saunderson-Meyer asks whether Ramaphosa's COP27 performance will assist much with our electricity crisis


There’s a silver lining to the most ominous climate change cloud. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa revealed his clean energy investment plan to funders at COP27 in Egypt this week. It was a rare moment of pleasure for the leader of a troubled nation who is under threat of a criminal investigation and may soon be deposed by his party. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Ramaphosa, whose greatest skills are drawing up plans and appearing suitably presidential, was in his element. The European Union, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States have pledged US$8.5bn (R150bn) to his five-year plan, mostly in the form of concessional loans.

The tone of Ramaphosa’s address, although diplomatic, was that the developing world in general and Africa, specifically, were entitled to redress in the form of non-repayable grants rather than burdensome loans. This required that the World Bank and African Development Bank would “need to be reformed” to provide “the required multilateral support”. 

It remains to be seen whether the Western nations will be much inclined to abandon existing funding mechanisms that Ramaphosa describes as carrying “onerous costs and conditionalities”, in favour of unrestrained largesse. Given that they face strong political and economic headwinds of their own, it seems unlikely.

There are other complicating factors. South Africa has proved to be spectacularly corrupt and, aside from when it has its palm out for greasing, has proved to be a very poor friend of the countries it is seeking funds from. One day the Western democracies will abandon policy-making based on sentiment, in favour of the hard-nosed quid pro quo approach of Ramaphosa’s best friends, Russia and China.

Nevertheless, COP27 did deliver some much-needed good publicity for the president. The EU’s Ursula von der Leyen gushed on Twitter, congratulating “dear Cyril” for his brilliance, while there were plenty of photo opportunities of hand-clasping daisy chains with the UK’s Rishi Sunak, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz and the US’s John Kerry.

Ramaphosa will bask in the apparent approbation. The warmth with which he was received is a reminder to his fractious party that he has an international stature that his uniformly dire challengers could never match. “I bring home the bacon,” is the message.

Back home, however, the transition to the green Utopia promised by him at COP27 looks as unlikely as his improbable promise four years ago of a New Dawn. Two reports, specifically, this week highlighted the vast gap that exists in South Africa between Ramaphosa’s plans and realities.

The first was Eskom’s latest statutory assessment of the power system. Even the best-case scenario showed that the power utility would be unable to meet the electricity needs of the country over the next five years. The worst-case scenario would see a 40% increase in the energy supply gap, equivalent to an additional power station, the size of Matla, performing at full load.

The second reality check came from the market research company Yazi. It released a national survey showing the crushing effect that Eskom’s power cuts are having on vulnerable South Africans eking a living in the informal economy. 

Erratic power supply has halved the income of most respondents — the majority of whom earn less than R6,000 per month — while simultaneously forcing 40% of them to increase their monthly expenditure on data by between R200-R400. More than 91% had no alternative power sources such as a UPS, an inverter, or a backup battery system.

Ramaphosa should bask in his COP27 glory while he can. The escalating pressures on Eskom mean that it is likely to be short-lived. More than 89% of the informal traders canvassed believe that continued blackouts “will lead to a national uprising, including acts of chaos, increasing strikes and looting”.  

The danger of violence sparked by dissatisfaction over erratic power is not confined to the informal sector. On Monday, residents of Witbank’s Emalahleni municipality, who have been without electricity for six weeks because of a damaged transformer, ran amuck. The final straw appears being told that they wouldn’t have power until after Christmas

The mob torched a shopping mall and looted shops, including a clothing chain store and a national supermarket outlet. The key N4 highway through Mpumalanga to tourist destinations such as the Kruger National Park, was briefly closed. One person was dead and two others were wounded.

The African National Congress has also been unable to resolve the intractable problem of a culture of non-payment for services. When calculating the price they’re willing to assuage their white colonial guilt, South Africa’s COP27 benefactors will be very aware that whether the energy generated is “green” or coal-propelled, sustainability is not only a matter of supply but consumption.

There is also growing tension between Eskom’s paying customers and those who are free riding. Those good citizens paying for their electricity are angered when the illegal connections of non-paying neighbours overload the grid to cause equipment failures and outages. 

In an effort to curb electricity theft — which in the six months to September 2020 cost Eskom R5bn in lost revenue and R1bn to replace burnt-out transformers — the utility won’t repair equipment until the illegal connections are removed.

Paying customer in these predominantly black areas are understandably upset at being punished for the criminal actions of others. In Pretoria, last weekend, Lebanon township’s residents blockaded roads and burnt tyres to protest their Slovoville counterparts triggering yet another outage with their illegal connections. Police broke up the protest with rubber bullets.

Nationwide, more than 50% of the electricity bought by municipalities for redistribution is subsequently not paid for by their residents. Soweto is one of the worst performers in the country. Less than one in five residents pays for electricity and the township is responsible for R7bn of the R51bn current municipal debt to Eskom.

A few years ago, in 2019, Ramaphosa berated municipalities for tolerating this He said South Africans needed to change their attitudes and get rid of their “culture of non-payment”. His plea had no effect and in the following year Eskom wrote off R8bn of Soweto debt.

Last week, Ramaphosa told parliamentarians that non-payment for services was “unacceptable”. During the very same session he hinted, in response to a call by the Gauteng premier for yet another Eskom amnesty for Soweto, that this was feasible, subject to unspecified conditions. Such a write-off supposedly would spur economic development in the township.

A Sowetan amnesty is a politically opportunistic and monumentally stupid idea under the best of circumstances. It eventually would have to be replicated nationwide and would further entrench the culture of non-payment.

That the president would even countenance this for a moment, coming hard on the heels of passing around the begging bowl at COP27, is unfathomable.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye