Method in Mantashe’s madness

ANTHONY BUTLER: There is method in Gwede Mantashe’s mineral ‘madness’

The energy minister is treading a fine line between constituencies while taking flak for the president

First published in BL PREMIUM, 11 NOVEMBER 2021

Have we been underestimating mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe?

This supposed “policy dinosaur” was lambasted in recent days for his contributions at the Africa Energy Week conference in Cape Town, where he called for African solidarity in the face of a Western drive for a renewable energy transition. “We are being pressured, even compelled,” he claimed, “to move away from all forms of fossil fuels, including resources such as gas, which have been regarded as key resources for industrialisation.”

This is the latest episode in Mantashe’s long-running climate change soap opera. In June, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a liberalisation of the licensing regime for private generation of power, Mantashe made a great show of having been coerced into signing on the dotted line.

Two months later, when Eskom CEO André de Ruyter floated a plan to secure international concessional finance in exchange for the accelerated retirement of coal-fired plants, Mantashe told parliament that SA is, “a strange country that is so keen to commit economic suicide … China is building 15 coal-fired power stations today, as we sit here”.

In October Mantashe declined to meet climate envoys from the UK, US, Germany, France and the EU, who flew to SA to discuss concessional loans and grants. He also refused to attend the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, arguing that “many people will be frightened” or even ask why a “coal fundamentalist” is there.

Yet Mantashe is not a climate denialist and he shows full awareness that the carbon intensity of SA’s economy threatens our debt servicing and our access to crucial international markets. There are four possible contributions he may be making to the government’s overall negotiating strategy.

First, he has been designated to deliver rude, or at least uncomfortable, truths to ostensible international benefactors. In particular he has flagged developed countries’ failure to honour previous multibillion-dollar commitments to fund energy transitions. African countries, he has noted, should not be condemned for failing to dump coal generation when developed countries “keep postponing the deadlines of when they will shut down their coal mines and oil and gas industries”.

Second, Mantashe has steered a careful path between the positions of international allies. His words have quite closely shadowed the policy positions of SA’s diplomatic partners in the Brics group of countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — pointing repeatedly to the legacies and obligations of the historical beneficiaries of carbon-driven industrialisation, primarily in the West.

Third, the minister’s avowed stance on a just transition showcases the government’s claim to be heeding the voices of the tens of thousands of workers in the energy sector who depend directly on the coal economy. In this way he is taking political bullets that would otherwise hit Ramaphosa. He is also gradually winning over labour and union audiences to the need for a transition, by showing he is their advocate and not simply a poodle of business or wealthy Western countries.

Finally, the presidential climate commission has set out a realistic pathway towards an energy transition. Hopefully, this shows international audiences that SA is not simply crazy. In the deal recently announced at COP26, rich northern countries have agreed to source $8.5bn to support SA’s move away from coal, and to help accelerate the transition to a lower-emission economy.

Northern donors might understandably feel environment, forestry & fisheries minister Barbara Creecy could not look such a gift horse in the mouth. However, Mantashe invariably forefronts the strong domestic political resistance that may obstruct any such deal. In this way he makes it clear to international partners that more limited conditionality — and additional concessional funding — will be required to smooth the way to a just transition.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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