South Africa’s electricity crisis: muddle through, meltdown or miracle?

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By Patrick Bond

February 5, 2015 -- originally published at TeleSUR English, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- South Africa is losing its power, literally. It’s a process called “load shedding” that will last for the foreseeable future. The state energy utility Eskom is careening out of control, begging for an emergency $4.5 billion bailout within the $120 billion national budget later this month.

The coming fork in the road provides three distinct directions. The poorly-lit one straight ahead suffers from potholes that force stop-start-reverse maneuvers.

Second, the most scary route away from this fork, lacks streetlights and appears to be illuminated only by a brief, fiery meltdown – utter grid failure – at the end of the road. Then, no Eskom or municipal electricity supplies will be available for weeks, they say.

In a third direction, looking leftwards, a light flickers at the end of a dangerous tunnel, but to get there safely means slowing the vehicle to a manageable pace and tossing the greediest 1% of passengers out, thus allowing everyone else to at least enjoy basic-needs electricity.

When originally built, this vehicle had the capacity to run quickly – with 43 000 MegaWatts of installed peak power – but in coming months and probably years, only 70% is available for use because of delayed maintenance. As a result, travel on the status quo road will become ever more chaotic as competition rises for declining electricity supplies.

Making excuses for muddling through

Eskom chief executive officer Tshediso Matona attributesthe unreliability of our equipment” to his predecessors, who delayed maintenance due to populist electioneering by the ruling African National Congress party and, as well, “the World Cup played a big role” because the lights had to stay on in mid-2010.

Within corporate South Africa, the 31-member Energy Intensive Users’ Group (EIUG) comprises most of the mining houses and smelter customers; the EIUG consumes 44% of the country’s electricity. It’s at the core of what academics term the “Minerals Energy Complex”; its leaders were the main authors of the state energy policy in 2010.

The “muddling through” scenario entails Eskom bumbling along, as it has the past quarter century since major decisions were taken about what was then its overcapacity crisis. Instead of mothballing its climate-wrecking, coal-fired power plants, Eskom attracted new smelters constructed by BHP Billiton and the Anglo American Corporation by offering massive rates discount, which still today mean huge firms get power at 1/8th what ordinary consumers pay.

Sometimes the mines and smelters agree to lower their demand. But the EIUG retains sufficient power that its former director Mike Roussow is now a top Eskom advisor.

When, for example, last November 2, Eskom’s Majuba coal silo crashed, “National Load Shedding [a term for brown-out] was implemented affecting municipal customers and Eskom residential customers” and not the mega-guzzlers, according to the EIUG. Much later, there was “curtailment from Key Industrial Customers on 12 November to assist Eskom in meeting demand requirements over the peak”.

They are able to maintain this power because of prevailing power relations in the society. Ironically, the most angry passengers in the back of Eskom’s chaotic fleet include furious trade unionists and township residents who are ANC members but who have been paying extreme price increases annually – more than 150% cumulatively since 2007 – while experiencing degenerating service.

One green passenger, Earthlife’s Dominique Doyle, blamed Eskom for emitting more CO2 than anyone else in Africa and hence contributing to more atmospheric moisture which causes more rain. That in turn made Eskom’s coal dust a useless soup last March, thus causing further emergency load-shedding. It’s a refreshingly valid argument in scientific terms, and unusual, in a society near the bottom of world rankings in climate awareness.

‘Meltdown’ emanating from excessive mining and smelting

As a result of such ingrained EIUG stubbornness, the doomsday scenario is not impossible: an out-of-control rolling black-out that prevents Eskom from turning its dozen main powerplants back on without the infamous “black start” routine.

Last June, the firm’s spokesperson Andrew Etzinger assured that that scenario would result in only a fortnight-long crisis, but not to worry, a good supply of diesel makes the black-start restart feasible at most power plants.

Providing relief from Etzinger’s persistent unfounded optimism, Eskom sustainability manager Steve Lennon confessed in August, “We would have to rely on our own black-start plant to start the system from scratch. We are not ready for that at all.

There is a terrifying fictional precedent in which an entire advanced economy and society is hit by an indefinite “lights off!”. The US television series Revolution is based on the premise that nanotechnology nerds can be influenced by asinine politicians. In the series plot, nanobots are let loose on the world, sucking up electricity sufficient to cause a 15-year blackout and social mayhem.

If a full grid collapse occurs, mutual aid systems that have existed in so many South African migrant-labour export sites – such as stokvel collective savings societies – will be vital. More likely in less-civilised places (such as Johannesburg’s wealthy suburbs), there will be a rush for household petrol generators and a new wave of wall building around those elite establishments that can muster off-grid power, as the rest of society’s food runs out and municipal water pumps are turned off.

A miracle scenario?

If that is too horrible to contemplate, then we must hope that the “miracle’ scenario overcomes elites’ paralysis with grassroots consumer and community movements, a revitalised commitment by organised labour to broader public interests, and society’s renewed respect for environmentalists.

For instance, community activists conduct “service delivery protests”’ – thousands last year, of which nearly 2000 became “violent” according to police definitions – and on a day-to-day basis, to reconnect power illegally.

For instance, the founder of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), Trevor Ngwane, was fired by the ANC as a Johannesburg city councillor and as the party’s Soweto leader in 1999 and within six months the SECC had emerged as an inspiration for similar power struggles across the world.

Another miracle solution – the “Just Transition” away from carbon-addicted economics – is provided by the Alternative Information and Development Centre, which sponsors the Million Climate Jobs campaign.

That campaign is illustrative of the light at the end of the tunnel, for it poses creative options that would allow metalworkers to turn their welding skills to making turbines for wind and tidal energy, auto makers to produce new forms of public transport and hole-digging mineworkers to return home to townships with the skills required to create underground biogas digesters for sanitation that also supply cooking methane.

A miracle scenario is actually one that the militant National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) occasionally dreams. Its renewable energy team has made inspiring statements over the past five years, led by the union’s education officer Dinga Sikwebu, who is now a strong advocate for a broad United Front.

Illustrating some early connections in a precursor to the front, NUMSA took the lead in building a momentarily successful anti-Eskom alliance once before: over prices. NUMSA had demanded that the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) lower Eskom’s tariff hike that year from the firm’s proposed 16%. Although NERSA angrily blamed NUMSA for a January 2013 labour-community protest that disrupted its first hearing, in Port Elizabeth, eventually the regulator agreed that Eskom should only get an 8% increase.

The problem, though, was that NERSA – a “captive regulator” whose first leader, Xolani Mkhwanazi, went on to become BHP Billiton’s local boss, and who now defends the R11.5 billion Eskom subsidy he had repeatedly approved during the 1990s – did not delve into the rest of the energy crisis. So as NERSA napped, Eskom continued to mostly ignore renewable energy, and Transnet doubled the size of its Durban-Johannesburg oil pipeline without critical scrutiny.

Menu for a miracle

As NERSA regulation continues to fail society, ironically, the miracle option begins to look more plausible – even if highly unlikely – once one considers underlying political trends.

One factor is the extent of durable anger against the state over electricity, specifically what is sometimes described as “poor and expensive electricity supplies”, signifying problems with both access and costs.

The community protests are ubiquitous, sometimes victorious, but also full of dangers, including a localistic perspective without ideology. That problem dates back more than 15 years, to when waves of post-apartheid unrest swept urban and even small-town South Africa, even when Nelson Mandela ruled.

Over just the past six months, South Africa’s national media covered intense electricity protests in the core site of struggle, Soweto (against pre-payment meters), and in the townships of Thembelihle near Lenasia and Lawley near Ennerdale in southern Johannesburg, Kwanonqaba near Mossel Bay, Grabouw in the Western Cape, Mhlotsheni and Qhanqo villages in the Eastern Cape, Mankweng and Thoka near Pholokwane, and oThongathi north of Durban.

But a lack of linkages to one another and to similar water, housing, health care and education protests reflect how much a common democratic organisational home is desperately needed.  

The fiery community protests have had their dark side: scores of electrocutions when activists reconnect wires without caution, kids not being able to attend school during demonstrations and periodic outbursts of xenophobia.

NUMSA’s deputy general secretary Carl Kloete offered one of the most optimistic scenarios of how, in the wake of Eskom’s repeated failures, a different electricity institution might emerge from the mess:

When we talk about social ownership of energy systems we are referring to the fact that ownership of energy resources must be taken out of private hands and be put in the hands of the public… When we talk about social ownership of energy systems we are referring to energy systems that respect our environmental rights, our rights for survival and those of future generations.

Late last year, NUMSA helped coalesce the United Front of community, social movement and environmental leaders. Last week, the United Front’s interim National Working Committee made encouraging statements along these lines, too.

These values should be the basis for a coalition bringing together affordable-energy activists in communities (as well as feminists possessing class consciousness), providing that such a transition would allow more free basic electricity  than at present, cross-subsidised by charging more to wealthier over-consumers. Earthlife Africa advocates a raise to 200 kWh/household/month as reasonable.

We all want miracles to happen. One example is the defeat of apartheid in spite of its decades-long attractiveness to multinational corporations and the West’s “democracies” (recall how Washington officiallylabelled Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” from 1961-2008!). Another South African miracle is the turnaround in life expectancy from 65 years in 1994 to 52 in 2005 to 61 today, mainly as a result of 2.7 million people getting antiretroviral drugs from the public sector, which happened purely because of treatment activists. Access to medicines cut AIDS deaths from 364,000 in 2005 to 172,000 last year.

It is here that the United Front might explicitly claim to have within it all the most vital ingredients to provide the political will that generated those other two miracles, namely: the expertise and militancy of Eskom and Billiton workers, the anger of service delivery protesters, the desire of those poor masses lacking affordable electricity, the critical sensibility of environmentalists – all embracing the bravery and vigour of a young new organisation committed to fighting the state and capital from the left.

The sense South Africans have of paralysis above and movement below leaves these sorts of energy scenario planning exercises –“muddle through”, “meltdown” and “miracle” – in a rather fluid state.

But at a time the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report labels South Africa the world’s most intense class struggle site, the vitality of the coming debate on how Eskom should produce, transmit and distribute its power will surely mean we look hard at the extremes as well as the status quo.

If change entails rejecting the capture of South Africa’s electricity by multinational corporations as well as the scamming behind ANC crony capitalism, it also must entail advocacy of an alternative strategy. That means, as the electricity is cut erratically each week into the foreseeable future, and as more South Africans become ever more gatvol [fed up] we can hope – and work – for a miracle.

[Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and authored the book Politics of Climate Justice. He is a NUMSA Institute advisory board member.]