President cracks the whip, tells officials to speed up President reads energy chiefs the riot act
Hajra Omarjee and Thando MaekoPresident Cyril Ramaphosa rues the slow pace of implementing his 2022 plan to end power blackouts, cracking the whip on those he put in charge as calls to declare a ring-fenced state of disaster over load-shedding gain traction.
Faced with growing criticism and impatience over power blackouts, which undermine his economic revival strategies, Ramaphosa in July last year unveiled a sweeping overhaul of the energy sector.
The so-called energy action plan, the biggest feature of which was to allow companies to build power plants of any size without a licence and to sell it to the grid, should have made a difference within months.
Yet SA’s energy supply crisis has worsened, forcing Eskom to impose stage 6 load-shedding on a regular basis after burning through billions of rand running diesel-powered open turbines. There are worries that Eskom could ramp it to stage 8 as its ageing power stations buckle.
Ramaphosa has told his administration, including ministers and the Eskom executive, that they should have been further along by now.
"The president has come down on all of us very hard, harder than ever before," the head of the project management office in the presidency, Rudi Dicks, said at a briefing session with editors in Johannesburg.
This followed a series of engagements Ramaphosa had with stakeholders as the country grapples with the worst load-shedding it has seen since blackouts began in 2008.
Ramaphosa is expected to ask the cabinet ahead of the state of the nation address later in February to consider a ring-fenced state of disaster. Supporters of the move, such as the DA and the National Planning Commission, say is likely to give a few individuals, accountable to each other, wide-ranging powers to cut through red tape and other bureaucratic roadblocks.
"The president is clear that the pace of energy reform has been too slow. He says he wants permits and things to be done in half the time," Dicks said.
He added that a state of disaster would also allow power plants to be better protected from theft and sabotage and allow ministers to approve a "whole set of interventions".
The ANC envisions a pool of experts will meet on a weekly basis to co-ordinate, discuss and advise the government on all aspects of the energy crisis.
At the height of the pandemic, the implementation of the state of disaster gave the government sweeping powers to implement regulations — such as restriction of movement and bans on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes — without parliamentary oversight and often at short notice as part of measures to curb Covid-19.
"This disaster will help us with regulations … that will enable other departments to work together in doing away with load-shedding," said ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula at a media briefing on Tuesday after the party’s lekgotla.
The energy crisis, which is also sometimes blamed on the corruption frenzy during state capture, is hitting small businesses the hardest because they have limited cash reserves for backup power, prompting some to call for a relief package for the segment. Dicks said the government is considering helping small businesses to switch to solar energy.
The increasingly loud calls for the national state of disaster come as Ramaphosa prepares to reshuffle his cabinet.
ANC chair Gwede Mantashe, who is a key ally of Ramaphosa in the ANC and in government, is expected to retain a position within the cabinet but it is unclear whether he will remain the minister of mineral resources & energy because he "kept looking to the president to support, and that support never came", according to one member of the ANC national executive committee (NEC).
"However small, there is still a possibility of Gwede being moved from energy," said another NEC member, who spoke to Business Day on condition of anonymity.
Mantashe has been facing a backlash over his alleged inaction during the power crisis. But the ANC has defended him, with Mbalula saying his views on the just transition and retaining coal as part of the energy mix are in line with the party’s policy.
Business Day reliably understands that ANC this week showed little appetite to immediately shift responsibility for Eskom from the department of public enterprises.
Sense of urgency: Rudi Dicks, head of the project management office in the presidency, said on Tuesday that President Cyril Ramaphosa wants permits for energy generation to be done twice as fast. Freddy Mavunda