ANTHONY BUTLER: Good ol’ Gwede, an asset to the president, a liability to his portfolio
The energy minister is too invested in coal mining to make the drastic changes needed for stable electricity
First published in BD and BDLive
18 MARCH 2021
What distinguishes finance minister Tito Mboweni from mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe? (No, not that, Tigers. Don’t even go there.)
The pertinent contrast is that Mboweni is mostly blamed for his own decisions. Mantashe, meanwhile, is largely viewed as a proxy for President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Why is Mantashe seen as Ramaphosa’s man? He worked in the mining industry from the age of 20, and ascended quickly in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) created by Ramaphosa. He rose to national prominence at the watershed Polokwane conference of the ANC in 2007, where he was elected secretary-general of the party.
Mantashe was key to Ramaphosa’s rise to the deputy presidency of the ANC in 2012. Lobbied to join the anti-Jacob Zuma slate at Mangaung, he stuck with the incumbent but used his leverage to advance Ramaphosa’s candidacy.
As party manager in the run-up to the 2017 Nasrec conference Mantashe helped make possible Ramaphosa’s triumph. He also averted an attempt to collapse the conference before its conclusion. At Ramaphosa’s birthday party in November 2017, just a month before the conference, Mantashe was at the aspirant president’s side.
Mantashe seemed an inspired choice as minister responsible for energy policy. But he was quickly bogged down in yesterday’s political challenges, rather than realising today’s technological opportunities.
The Eskom coal supply chain, and the associated trucking industry, offers a roll-call of influential ANC donors. Many of these entrepreneurs are at the centre of the historic process of building a significant black business class in SA. Meanwhile, as deputy president David Mabuza noted in parliament last week, the Eskom workforce has doubled in a decade, while key skills have been lost.
The ANC as a whole is implicated in these dynamics, not least because the disastrous R450bn Medupi and Kusile projects were subverted from their start — in the Thabo Mbeki era — to fund the party and ANC-linked beneficiaries.
A reforming ANC energy minister therefore comes under fire from all sides. This week the NUM condemned proposals to trim the Eskom workforce by a mere 4,000 — and this in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis.
Little wonder Mantashe has sometimes grasped at the illusory straw of “clean coal” and averted hard decisions about regulatory reform. While he delays, however, unreliable and costly electricity is painfully reducing investment and jobs. And things will get worse fast.
The coal dependency of the energy economy will make it increasingly hard to service the government’s burgeoning debt, because international bond investors are looking to reduce the carbon intensity of their portfolios. Carbon-linked barriers to exports will follow, not least for the automotive industry.
Meanwhile, in the absence of a managed domestic energy transition we will soon have a stampede. Big cities, big businesses and the wealthy households that cross-subsidise municipal services are starting to migrate off-grid.
Rather than exploiting the financial opportunities presented by the uptake of new technologies, Mantashe resembles the King Canute of energy: an old man trying to hold back the tides. The minister responsible for stabilising Eskom and managing the energy transition needs to be forward-looking rather than a prisoner of the past.
Inexorable change will leave behind casualties, to be sure, among them emerging business people, the coal lobby, elements of organised labour and key party donors. But so long as the minister is seen as Ramaphosa’s proxy, the pain that flows from policy and regulatory change will be laid at the president’s door.
Perhaps one Mboweni is enough for any government, but an energy reform champion who takes responsibility for his own decisions is sorely needed. Mantashe needs a fresh portfolio in which his talents and his proximity to the president represent an asset rather than a liability.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.