Ministers clash over power cuts

2012-04-21 13:42

A war of words has erupted between two senior Zimbabwe cabinet ministers over persistent power cuts that have increased, as the country battles to settle its huge electricity debt.

The state-owned power utility, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa), has embarked on a nationwide campaign of disconnecting electricity defaulters and has increased the period of power cuts, which now last between five and six hours a day.

Now Lands and Agriculture Minister Joseph Made, who is a member of President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, has clashed with Energy and Power Development Minister Elton Mangoma from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) over the nascent effect of Zesa’s increased power cuts on agricultural production.

Political observers point out that the latest clash between Zanu-PF and the MDC over power cuts highlights the prevailing policy inconsistency that has characterised the three-year-old unity government.

Particularly concerning for Zanu-PF is that the power cuts affect a core plank of its election campaign – farming – which it will use alongside the indigenisation programme to canvass for votes.

Mugabe wants the elections to be held this year. Made says the power cuts have “decimated” crops. It emerged last week that at least 45% of Zimbabwe’s maize crop was a write-off and the country needed 800 000 tons of maize to prevent a food crisis.

“If you switch off (electricity from) the plants, animals will die. Our farmers used to pay for electricity bills through a stop order system. That is why there were marketing boards like the Dairy Marketing Board and the Cotton Marketing Board where the stop orders were effected. The agriculture industry used to pay electricity bills once or twice a year, not the demands that are being made by Zesa to pay up or be switched off,” said Made.

But a defiant Mangoma insisted he would accelerate the power cuts as he urgently needs to raise $40 million (about R313 million) to pay Mozambique’s Hydro Cahorra Bassa (HCB) Power Company. Zesa owes HCB $90 million and has been under pressure from the Mozambican power company to settle its debt or risk being cut off.

“Where will we get the money? We are not able to offset (pay) the debt at once as the economy is struggling and we will continue mobilising money through various forms which include disconnections,” said Mangoma.

A senior Zesa official, who spoke to City Press this week on condition of anonymity, also ruled out the possibility of farmers being treated with kid gloves, given the approaching winter season that would see increased electricity demand countrywide.

“Zesa has no choice but to resort to power cuts and these will definitely increase during winter as it is peak season and we have to juggle the available power,” said the Zesa official.

Zimbabwe produces 1 200 MW of electricity from its Hwange and Kariba power stations, which falls short of the 2 200 MW the country needs monthly.

Electricity imports from South Africa, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also failed to augment the country’s power shortfall, as the cash-strapped Zesa has failed to settle its debts to the foreign power suppliers.

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