Time for a reform-oriented energy minister

ANTHONY BUTLER: Ramaphosa must stop talking out of both sides of his mouth on energy reform

This game of pretence cannot continue: SA needs a reform-orientated energy minister

First published in BusinessLive

13 JANUARY 2023

President Cyril Ramaphosa should be riding high, having been re-elected by a healthy margin at the recent ANC conference. The trouble is, he has to deal with a national disaster called Eskom, and that means resolving tension between changing international realities and powerful domestic vested interests. And he also has to understand cyanide poisoning.

Despite adaptive capacities businesses and consumers have displayed — and these have been considerable — “Stage 6” blackouts mean sewage and water treatment plants begin to collapse, hospitals and schools can no longer function, and productivity continues to stagnate. Relentless power cuts also pose the biggest threat to the ANC’s ability to secure majority support in the 2024 elections.

Some in the ANC have predictably boiled the problem down to a revision of organograms. There is certainly some rationale for downsizing the department of public enterprises and transferring state-owned enterprises (SOEs), including Eskom, to line departments. It would also make sense to reverse the merger between the energy and minerals departments, because this has bolstered unholy alliances between vested interests.

But Ramaphosa also needs to lead from the front on the substantive reform programme itself. He has so far talked out of both sides of his mouth on energy reform, using mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe as his domestic body shield.

Ramaphosa, we are supposed to believe, has been pushing for an energy transition. Mantashe has purportedly been blocking him. This would be credible only if the minister did not serve at the president’s pleasure — and if Mantashe was not Ramaphosa’s closest and longest-standing ally in government and the ANC.

This game of pretence cannot continue: SA now needs a reform-orientated energy minister. Narratives that were fading five years ago — about “base load”, Western double standards, nuclear generation and the possibility of “clean coal” — have made a resurgence. The energy “common sense” in the ANC is largely nonsense.

This has been much to the advantage of what we might call the “coal lobby”, a disparate grouping of narrow interests with allies of convenience in the ANC party funding machine, among padded employees of SOEs, and in labour unions fearful of an energy transition that might damage them.

Reform proposals that would benefit the population in general are being thwarted by these narrow beneficiaries. Ramaphosa himself needs to champion his ostensible programme at home, and not rebut coal fundamentalists only in overseas forums.

The president faces an equally deep challenge with regard to the leadership of Eskom. The long anticipated departure of André de Ruyter was greeted with enthusiasm by an overwhelming majority of senior ANC politicians, who appeared keen to focus on his race, to transfer blame to him for broader government failures, and to reverse the clear reform agenda De Ruyter, and nominally the president, were pursuing.

It is difficult to believe there was a serious attempt to kill the CEO — surely the capabilities of the broad coal lobby, and associated mafias, are relatively well developed in the field of assassination? The president will have to judge whether the poisoning bid was instead a signal that was designed to discourage any credible candidate from applying for the role. It would certainly appear that the only people who would currently accept the job would be candidates totally unsuited to carry it out.

In other words, the coal lobby already has candidates they control who would reliably protect their immediate interests at the expense of those of the wider society. Will Ramaphosa simply fold? Or will he insist on a genuine search for a CEO who can drive the reform agenda he claims to champion? And will he offer them, and the programme, the real personal backing he has so far withheld? Only the president can decide.

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

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