Andreas Späth

Whose electricity is it anyway?

2010-09-22 07:10

At this very moment, wide-ranging decisions about South Africa’s energy future are being made. Decisions that will have major impacts on the environment and on the ecological legacy we’ll leave to future generations. But who is making these decisions?

Government is working on an “Integrated Energy Plan”, a “Climate Change Response Policy”, the second “Integrated Resource Plan” (IRP2) and the establishment of an “Independent Systems Market Operator”. If you’ve heard about any of these, let alone understand what they involve, you belong to a privileged minority.

Take the IRP2, also known as the IRP2010, for example. This plan will establish the framework for major policy and investment choices that need to be made to ensure South Africa’s electricity supply for the next 20 years - how many and what kinds of new power plants are to built and so on. Not a trifling matter and one in which we should all have a say. Indeed, according to the Minister of Energy, Dipuo Peters “the Department [of Energy] is committed to stakeholder engagement and public participation with regard to the IRP2010 […] Public participation is crucial if we were to develop a plan that will stand up to scrutiny […] so that whatever emerges from it will represent the widest spread of views across both government and civil society.”

In reality, of course, the process has been about as consultative as the Spanish Inquisition.

Official documents and procedures are steeped in impenetrably technical and bureaucratic jargon and government has done precious little to inform ordinary people about the issues involved or the fact that they have the right to participate in the debate. Even dedicated NGOs have found it prohibitively difficult to properly engage with and respond to government’s proposals in the very limited time granted them. And when they do formally submit contributions - some 300 civil society comments have been submitted for the IRP2 - only a tiny minority is actually taken into consideration while the majority is simply ignored. Official attempts to co-opt a few hand-picked NGOs amount to little more than trying to legitimise what remains a deeply undemocratic process.

If you’re tempted to think that at least the so-called representatives of South African voters have more of a say in what will go into the IRP2 than civil society at large, you’re sadly mistaken. Parliament has only had a single meeting about the IRP2 and with the exception of a few notable rebel voices, the people’s paid deputies have remained shtum on the issue. Yet we are told that a draft plan is already in circulation within the Department of Energy.

So who is calling the shots? Would you call me a conspiracy theorist if I told you that our country’s energy future is being substantially determined by what is overwhelmingly a small group of powerful men representing the very same interests that have landed us in the mess we’re in today and made us one of the most carbon-intensive countries on the planet? The crucially important technical advisory panel for the IRP2 consists almost exclusively of Eskom technocrats, state apparatchiks and representatives of South Africa’s most wealthy, energy- and carbon-intensive industries with virtually no delegates from civil society or labour to speak of.

And they call this democracy. Looks more like oligarchy – rule by an elite – to me.

So here’s a challenge to Minister Peters: It’s not only your moral and ethical duty to comprehensively inform and consult the general public about the IRP2 process and enable them to participate in it actively, but also a precisely defined legal obligation. There is absolutely no reason why, given good information and the opportunity to engage in robust debate, ordinary citizens should not be capable of collectively making sound decisions about their own energy future.

And the rest of us? Let’s become active citizens and citizen activists. Let’s support and join the organisations that are trying to give voice to public concerns in the energy debate. If we don’t, we’ll simply get railroaded into more of the same old non-solutions: laughably insignificant commitments to renewable energy, more CO2-spewing coal power stations and more dirty nuclear energy.

- Andreas was inspired to write this column by contributions made by participants at a recent meeting of the Civil Society Energy Caucus – any inaccuracies are his own. He manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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