Electricity minister powerless

President Cyril Ramaphosa is facing increasing pressure to hand powers to his new electricity minister and enable him to make decisions to stave off more intense load-shedding as peak winter demand looms.

Two months after Ramaphosa appointed Kgosientsho Ramokgopa to the post, the president has yet to clarify what capacities he will transfer from the energy and public enterprises ministries, which have responsibility for policy and the state electricity company respectively, to the new office.

According to a government official, control over energy procurement from independent producers and generation capacity, among other functions, would enable the minister to stave off the possibility of longer outages in the coming months.

Africa’s most-industrialized nation has been subjected to rolling power cuts almost every day this year as Eskom, which supplies about 90% of the country’s electricity, fails to meet demand from its dilapidated plants.

The crisis erodes the nation’s economic growth prospects, disrupting local supply chains and stoking inflation.

Ramaphosa is finalizing what powers will be given to Ramokgopa, and there’s no timeline on when a decision will be taken, presidency spokesman Vincent Magwenya said by text message.

While Ramaphosa’s administration has maintained that a complete collapse of the nation’s electricity grid is unlikely, some government members are advocating for a contingency plan to be put in place and made public as power cuts may intensify in the winter, the official said.

Ramakgopa’s plans to address the situation are being hamstrung by Ramaphosa’s failure to transfer the necessary powers, the official said.

The minister pitched a proposal to the cabinet on Wednesday, laying out the options the government must consider to curb the crippling power cuts.

They include exemptions for pollution emissions, extending the lifespan of coal-fired power stations, and sourcing new funding to recapitalize Eskom and procure emergency power.

Kgosientsho Ramokgopa
Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa

Crisis Committee

The National Energy Crisis Committee will consider a further assessment of the proposals at a meeting that will be convened “as speedily as possible,” acting government spokesman Michael Currin said in a statement on Wednesday.

Eskom is currently implementing stage 5 and 6 load-shedding — removing between 5,000 and 6,000 megawatts from the grid that leaves residents without power for at least 10 hours a day.

A year before voters go to the polls in a general election, public anger is growing about the government’s inability to deliver basic services.

Ramaphosa’s decision to appoint an electricity minister was widely seen to avoid dealing with ongoing tensions between Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and Mineral and Energy Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe — two of his close political allies — over who has responsibility for energy.

Usurping power from the energy minister risks leaving Ramaphosa without the political protection provided by Mantashe in his powerful position as chairman of the governing Africa National Congress.

According to a Social Research Foundation poll published this week, the extreme power cuts have increased the possibility of the ANC losing its majority at the polls and being forced to govern through a coalition.

In a worst-case scenario, South Africa could face five months of so-called stage 8 load-shedding this year unless there is an intervention, the official said.

Ramokgopa, a member of the ANC national executive committee, is expected to present his plan to the cabinet in a meeting that gets underway on Friday.

The official said he’d use the meeting to lobby allies to impress upon Ramaphosa the need to be decisive about delegating the powers he needs.


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