Electricity touchstone

2008-01-22 00:00

The crisis around the availability of electricity continues to be a major issue facing this country. It has reached the point where either some pro-active steps will have to be taken to deflect its impact or there will be a drift, as has been the case in several other African countries, away from regular supply into outages as part of a way of life. The danger of such drifting lurks in the entire infrastructural fabric of the country, with the load shedding of electricity as a dramatic symbol of all the rest. South Africa faces a fresh challenge to be an exception on the continent of Africa, to attract foreign investment and to be an example generally to the world.

What is emerging clearly is a pattern of dual culpability for the present crisis on the part of the government and Eskom. Eskom warned the government some years ago of a looming problem of overload and asked for further substantial funding to create new power stations. The government chose instead to explore the route of possible privatisation. Nothing came of this and Eskom failed to press its case more vigorously.

The current stalemate could have the effect of concentrating the mind and prompting some positive initiatives. President Thabo Mbeki has been meeting urgently with the leadership of Eskom and business. Some adjustments and incentives will be necessary to cushion the problem. The African National Congress is talking about legally-driven incentives to encourage the use of solar heating and energy-efficient light bulbs. Calculated allocations of electricity could be made available to designated areas of the country, with an implied challenge or incentive to consumers to keep usage within such allocations.

Eskom has clarified that only surplus electricity has been sold, when available, to neighbouring countries. This has now been discontinued, which is not heartening news for those countries. Yet it is a sign of realism and relief for South Africans, all of whom must be prepared to pull their weight in seeking to overcome a daunting national problem.

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