Mariam Isa and Chris Yelland from EE Business Intelligence revealed that there is growing political interference in the work of Eskom’s System Operator, which is responsible for preventing a total blackout in South Africa through load-shedding.
The small seaside town of Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape, with an estimated population of between 26,000 and 30,000, has been exempted from power cuts for the entire week as it hosts a workshop on labour policy and international relations for a delegation of officials from the BRICS group of countries.
The exemption for the town, requested by the Department of Labour and granted by Eskom’s head office, is the clearest indication yet of growing political interference in the work of the utility’s System Operator, whose task is to keep the national power grid stable in the face of the country’s deepening electricity crisis.
The workshop for about 200 mid-level government officials – mainly from South Africa – is being held from Sunday, 7 May to Saturday, 13 May 2023, at the Royal St. Andrews Hotel, Spa and Conference Centre in Port Alfred.
As is common in South Africa these days, the venue is well equipped for power cuts with solar PV, battery storage and standby diesel generators.
The request for the whole town of Port Alfred to be exempted from load shedding for the duration of the workshop was initiated by Sipho Ndebele, acting Deputy Director-General for labour policy and international relations at the Department of Labour.
The request was submitted to municipal officials in the town, who passed the request on to the outsourced private service delivery company that manages the electricity distribution network for the Ndlambe Local Municipality, in which Port Alfred falls.
The company indicated that the request was outside its authority to grant and forwarded it to the local Eskom office because the load shedding of Port Alfred (or not, as the case may be) is physically conducted by Eskom.
This is common for smallish towns such as Port Alfred, where contrary to the larger metros, it is not the municipal electricity distributor or their outsourced service provider that does the switching but Eskom itself.
The local Eskom office also considered the request to be outside its limits of authority. So, the matter was duly referred to the regional Eskom Distribution office in Port Elizabeth.
Again, the buck was passed – this time to Eskom’s head office at Megawatt Park in Sunninghill, Johannesburg – where the exemption from load shedding was finally authorised for the week. The Department of Labour, and all along the chain of command at Eskom, were duly informed.
However, bureaucratic delays meant that the load shedding of Port Alfred only stopped on the afternoon of Monday, 9 May 2023.
When asked to comment, a senior executive at Eskom National Control, the organisation responsible for coordinating load shedding throughout South Africa, said:
“I am not aware of any such arrangement. I think a hoax. Eskom cannot, by law, exempt anyone from load-shedding. Neither can any municipality or other electricity provider. It is a license (NRS) requirement that it be done equitably and aligns with the Electricity Regulation Act. I strongly doubt any authority would risk their license.”
Of course, the System Operator at Eskom National Control is authorised to allow exemptions from load shedding at national key points and events of national importance. But this workshop can hardly be considered as such because the System Operator had no prior knowledge either of the event itself or the exemption granted.
This is not the first time that political interference may have played a role in requests for exemption from load shedding. The African National Congress (ANC) elective conference in December 2022 was also exempted due to political pressure and intervention from on high.
But in that case, City Power, the electricity distributor for the City of Johannesburg, exempted the NASREC Expo Centre – the venue close to Soweto – from load shedding, despite NASREC having the necessary diesel standby generators.
The political pressure to exempt the ANC elective conference from load shedding was a clear abuse, likely motivated under the guise of national security to avoid the cost to the party of hiring NASREC’s standby generators and the associated cost of diesel.
The Royal St. Andrews Hotel, Spa and Conference Centre in Port Alfred also has ample standby power facilities to enable the BRICS workshop to proceed unhindered by load-shedding.
In the case of Port Alfred, perhaps the load-shedding exemption was granted to ensure that delegates and guests at the workshop were able to perform their morning ablutions and enjoy breakfast at less well-equipped B&Bs and hotels around the coastal town.
It would also enable them to partake in the vibrant nightlife and entertainment on offer at the seaside town, unhindered by Stage 6 load-shedding that the rest of the country must endure.