South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has a certain routine of cutting off trips abroad because the lights go out at home. In September 2019, he returned from Egypt earlier than planned because of a widespread power outage in South Africa that lasted for weeks. The same was repeated in 2020 when Ramaphosa canceled his participation in the World Economic Summit in Davos. In September he canceled large parts of his trip to the US and the UK.
This year he is continuing the tradition of not appearing in Davos because the citizens of the Cape are currently without electricity for about ten hours a day. So far, the President’s canceled trips have not led to the hoped-for stabilization of the power supply, rather the opposite.
The opposition is planning strikes and protests
Problems with South Africa’s energy supply began in 2007. Mismanagement and corruption turned the state monopolist Eskom from a model company into a problem. The old coal-fired power plants are constantly failing, the new ones are not ready. In 2020, the power went out for 200 days, a new record. For years, South Africans have met the blackouts with great indifference, there has been much grumbling but no demonstrations. You’re used to a lot here.
In the meantime, however, the power outages have become so dramatic that the first protests have started. Various opposition parties have called for strikes and protests in the coming weeks. John Steenhuisen, head of the Democratic Alliance, has called for a January 25 march on the ruling party’s headquarters to protest the “crisis created by the ANC”.
The ANC has ruled the country since 1994, and after initial successes, South Africa has become a kind of mafia state in recent years. State-owned companies have also become self-service shops with the help of international corporations. The airline South African Airways had to file for bankruptcy, rail traffic has almost come to a standstill, and container ships are damming up in the ports.
Criminal networks have infiltrated no company as systematically as the energy giant Eskom. The monopolist spends around six billion euros on procurement every year. And get almost nothing for it. Eskom boss André de Ruyter, who has been in office for three years, has repeatedly described how the criminal syndicates supply the power plants with stones instead of coal. They also make spare parts disappear, which Eskom then has to buy back at great expense. De Ruyter has tried to monitor the coal trucks via satellite and introduce a barcode system for the spare parts.
Wind and solar energy have so far hardly played a role in South Africa
Thanks from politicians were limited. Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe accused the Eskom boss of “overthrowing the state”. A little later, de Ruyter reported that strangers had poisoned him with cyanide, and he left office in March. This will not improve the power supply, quite the opposite. Thousands of small businesses, restaurants and craftsmen are on the brink of collapse or can only work to a limited extent. Eskom itself expects the power outages to continue for up to two years. Only then could the new coal-fired power plants go online.
No other country in the world has such a high share of coal in power generation. For decades it was neglected to include the abundant sun and wind in South Africa in the energy mix. The ANC refused for ideological reasons, President Ramaphosa had once co-founded the largest coal miners’ union. In addition, with wind and sun, not so much can be stolen.
Because many in the country have had enough and want to demonstrate, the ANC is frantically looking for solutions. Ramaphosa called a virtual meeting with the major opposition parties on Sunday – but many were unable to attend because of power failures.