Olaf Scholz lands in load-shedding land

Andrew Donaldson on the German chancellor's talks with Herr Squirrel


WAR is hell. Obviously. All that senseless death and destruction, mayhem and murder, the mad rhetoric and jingoism, the sheer wastefulness of it all. It is also throws up major weirdness, bizarre behaviour born of utter desperation and unforeseen crises. 

Like chancellor Olaf Scholz including South Africa, a country atrophying in load-shedding stasis, as a destination on a schmooze cruise aimed at reducing German reliance on Russian energy supplies. 

I mean, here’s a government that simply cannot keep the lights on, and Scholz wants to meet? To discuss energy?

Actually, there was a bit more to it than that. According to a statement from the presidency ahead of their talks, Scholz and Cyril Ramaphosa were slated to discuss a number of issues; in addition to energy issues, climate change, trade and investment,  responses to the Covid pandemic and vaccine demand were also on the agenda.

And, as it turned out, there was mention of the war. 

Scholz specifically wanted the president to explain South Africa’s “non-aligned” position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Squirrel’s response, essentially, was no different to previous mealy-mouthed utterances on the conflict. Resolutely tone-deaf, he simply fails to read the room. 

“I don’t see any other way other than negotiating and dialogue,” he told reporters after the meeting on Tuesday.

Sanctions, unsurprisingly, were out of the question. Herr Squirrel, as the Germans may politely refer to him, waffled on about the collateral damage brought about by such measures. “Even those countries that are either bystanders or not part of the conflict are also going to suffer from the sanctions that have been imposed against Russia,” he said.

It goes without saying that is not the attitude the ANC adopted when it campaigned for the isolation of the apartheid regime.  

The “non-aligned” position is now widely regarded as one of support for Russian aggression. But it is one that may change in the weeks to come, especially when food shortages and other consequences of the destruction in Ukraine start to hurt. Those “bystanders” will suffer regardless of sanctions.

Vladimir Putin’s “denazification” adventure has left Germany, along with other European countries, in a tight spot. Which may explain Europe’s keen interest in the first leg of Scholz’s African visit: a stopover in Senegal, where he held talks with government members about gas extraction. 

The tiny West African nation has billions of cubic metres of reserves and is tipped to become a major gas producer in the region. There was also some chatter, after a visit to a solar power plant, about developing renewable energies.

However, the main item on the agenda was Germany’s immediate energy needs. Last year, some 55 per cent of the country’s gas was imported from Russia. Although this has been reduced to less than 40 per cent, it is obvious Scholz needs to find reliable alternative energy sources, and pronto.

The Senegalese are also “non-aligned”. But they’re keen to step up to the plate. President Macky Sall told reporters his country was ready to work towards supplying the European market with liquefied natural gas and predicted that Senegal’s output would reach 2.5-million tonnes next year and 10-million by 2030. 

So far, so good. Scholz was then off to Niger, where he promised long-term military and financial support to fight Islamist insurgents. Following a souring of relations between Western powers and the military junta in neighbouring Mali, Niger is now apparently reaping dividends for hosting European armed forces in its territory, so bully for them.

Scholz should have ended his trip there and then, winding up his first African safari on a high note. Instead, he continued southwards to Pretoria and a nation facing yet another week of load-shedding and fears of more acts of sabotage at Eskom’s wheezing, emphysemic power stations. 

According to a recent News24 report, those responsible for attempts to cripple the utilities no longer bother disguising their crimes. These are inside jobs, and it’s a safe bet that the culprits are among the most “vulnerable” of Eskom’s employees. That is, the cadre-deployed and other surplus baggage bound to be jettisoned as CEO André de Ruyter continues with the Sisyphean task of re-powering the country.

The solution, as De Ruyter has explained, is not so much fixing Eskom’s tired plants — but replacing them. Speaking to journalists in November last year, he compared the utility to an old motor vehicle that needed scrapping.

“The question,” he said, “is not how much it will cost to fix Eskom. We need to buy a new car; it just costs too much to fix the old car. This is exactly the opportunity we have with the money made available by COP26. [South Africa was pledged R131-billion at the UN climate change conference in Glasgow.] We can access international funding to a lower-carbon economy.”

The problem, however, is that energy minister Gwede Mantashe has a troubling, if romantic affinity with old-fashioned coal — and coal power stations. He’s forever assuring the coal mining industry that they have little to fear from progress, that they’ll be still be hauling the stuff out of the ground by the truckload in 2030, and those banging on about target plans for greenhouse gas emissions can get stuffed while they’re at it.

Such enthusiasm is touching, as is Mantashe’s stated belief that the “debate” is not about the transition from coal to renewables, but rather from “high carbon emission to low carbon emission”. He maintains that “clean coal technologies” are attainable with the country’s existing coal power stations. This despite the fact that they are dilapidated and ready to be junked. And that’s without taking the sabotage into account.

It’s almost as if the government does not want to consider any alternative to coal … because it’s hoping there’s life yet in that cockeyed Russian nuclear deal that was shot down as unlawful by the High Court in Cape Town in 2017.

Russia’s state-owned Rosatom company certainly hasn’t abandoned this project, which first came to light in 2014 after Jacob Zuma reportedly struck a “personal deal” with Vladimir Putin allowing the Russians to build up to eight new nuclear power plants in the country.

The plan was nixed because it turned out that Accused Number One didn’t have the authority and political support to bind the country to what would have been its biggest procurement deal ever. 

But, as Business Insider reported in February, South Africa still has hopes for a new nuclear build, and Rosatom remains an “interested vendor”. The company maintains the war in Ukraine will not endanger its South African plans. It told Business Insider: “Rosatom believes that relations in the field of nuclear energy should be distanced from politics. Rosatom is committed to and continues to fulfil all of its contractual obligations.”

Such things come to mind when faced with the dispiriting spectacle of the government’s obeisance to Russia.

No matter. Scholz has invited Squirrel to attend next month’s Group of Seven summit in Germany. He may think of this as “face time” with the world’s largest advanced economies—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States—but how exactly will they respond to South Africa’s “non-aligned” stance on the war? 

The Bavarian Alps, where leaders are meeting, can be nippy—even now in late spring. The cold shoulder treatment may make it especially uncomfortable for Squirrel. A nasty chill in the air. Or, ein fieser Schauer in der Luft, as they say up there in Schloss Elmau. There may be no problems reading the room then.

Legal matters

Much in the way of consternation from the commentariat in response to ANC veteran Tony Yengeni filing a formal complaint with the Judicial Services Commission against Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, accusing him of unduly meddling in the ruling party’s factional affairs.

Yengeni alleges that Zondo, whose head is no doubt still spinning from the drama of chairing the state capture inquiry, had made “adverse findings” against several high-profile ANC members who enabled the Guptas’ state capture project.

Chief beef, according to reports, concerns Zondo’s assertion that, had Squirrel not been elected party president in 2017, then the treasury, which fell under Malusi Gigaba at the time, would have been plundered to a far greater extent.

Many feel that, given his own criminal record, Yengeni is perhaps not entitled to hold forth on corruption and the like. However, it could well be that, being an ex-con fraudster, he perhaps knows a bit more about such things than most and his firm views on how judges should conduct themselves are grounded in personal experience.

It’s worth recalling that Yengeni, then the ANC’s chief whip, had been charged in 2001 with defrauding parliament by accepting a discount on a luxury car during the arms deal tendering process while he was a member of a parliamentary committee reporting on the very same deal. 

Being a bit of a prima donna with a warped flair for the dramatic, he then placed full-page advertisements declaring his innocence in all the Sunday newspapers, except the Sunday Times which had broken the story.

However, after plea-bargaining, Yengeni pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud and in March 2003 was sentenced to four years in prison. Following failed appeals, he finally entered Pollsmoor on August 24, 2006. He was given what some commentators suggested was a “hero’s send-off” but, in effect, was a farcical display in which his colleagues almost collapsed under the strain of hoisting the overweight Yengeni onto their shoulders to carry him over the threshold of the prison. 

Yengeni was immediately transferred to the more cushy Malmesbury prison and was released on parole in January 2007 after serving just four months. To be absolutely fair, this is four months more than a great many other ANC members have served as punishment for their crimes in a democratic South Africa. 

In November that year, he was arrested for drunk driving in Goodwood, Cape Town. However, a blood sample taken from Yengeni was found to be unfit for testing. This after an “unknown person” had been given access to the sample at the police station where he was held. The time of Yengeni’s arrest had also been altered on his docket. 

This rather conveniently dealt with those parole conditions that stipulated he was not permitted outside his home after 10pm, nor was he allowed to drink alcohol.

In 2010, it emerged that Yengeni had failed, as required by the Companies Act, to inform the registration office of his fraud conviction, and had failed to remove himself as a director of registered companies. He was sued and had to withdraw as a director from six companies. Later, in 2013, it was reported that Yengeni’s involvement in the arms deal had been more significant than previously reported.

In June 2018, Yengeni was made the chairperson of the ANC's crime and corruption committee. The party defended the decision. And why not? The man’s an expert; he knows his stuff.

Existential crisis

To Aberystwyth, where the local council has removed a memorial plaque from a bench overlooking the beach at this charming Welsh town. It read: “In loving memory of Huw Davies. Used to sit here and shout ‘Fuck off!’ at the seagulls.”

A spokesman for the local authority was quoted as saying, “An unauthorised plaque had been placed, by an unknown person, on an existing bench within Aberystwyth Castle grounds. The plaque has been removed.”

The incident has so unsettled the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) that many now have no intention of ever visiting Wales. What is the point, they ask, in trying to make a difference in this world, in raging away at the mundane and pedestrian, if the po-faced and priggish intend to remove all trace of our existence?