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The recent rolling blackouts, set to intensify, show that Eskom's operations have reached the level of a national crisis. Millions of jobs and livelihoods are at now stake.
This was inevitable given the extent of mismanagement, corruption and bad policy that Eskom has been subjected to over the past two decades. A total collapse now seems possible, but it is not inevitable. There are five things South Africa can do right away, to avert the monumental catastrophe of a full-scale blackout.
Firstly, the energy production market must be fully opened to competition. This would ideally, but need not necessarily, include privatising the generation entities of Eskom. Competition will rapidly increase activity, innovation and efficiency in energy production, enabling more energy and a more diverse range of energy to enter the grid. Decentralised production, diversification and increased supply will bring down electricity costs and build resilience into the system.
The current high prices and unreliable supply of energy is due to the socialist approach of giving a single, state-owned entity monopoly control of our energy market. If we did the same with our bread market, we’d very soon all be queuing for over-priced bread.
Secondly, Eskom should immediately freeze the build process of the last two outstanding units at Kusile. Those funds should be redirected to purchasing electricity from independent power producers. The Medupi and Kusile builds have major design and build flaws thanks to extraordinary levels of corruption and are thus not worth proceeding with, since they cannot deliver anywhere near the promised capacity.
Thirdly, engineering and maintenance at Eskom should be classified as an "essential service" that cannot enter into strike action. Otherwise, this crisis puts union bosses in a position to hold our entire economy hostage to their demands for ongoing above-inflation wage increases. We must preclude the possibility of extortion.
Fourthly, major smart meters must be installed for municipalities, to force municipalities to collect revenues and pay Eskom timeously. Eskom's financial and operational crises are irrevocably interlinked, because the worse Eskom's finances, the less maintenance is done on its infrastructure. The more unplanned outages Eskom experiences as a result, the less electricity it is able to sell and thus the deeper it slides into debt.
Fifthly, well-functioning metros and municipalities must be allowed to source energy directly from independent suppliers. SA cannot continue with Eskom being a monopoly buyer and seller of electricity. This is a classic case of having all our eggs in one basket. For example, if you have solar panels on your roof, you should be able to sell the excess energy you produce.
Most municipalities in the Western Cape already have legislation in place to buy and sell alternative sustainable energy such as solar energy. The DA is currently pursuing court action against the ANC government to win the right for local governments to buy and sell energy directly from independent producers. As soon as that legal battle is won, our local governments can hit the ground running.
DA-led governments have taken proactive measures to reduce the risk imposed by this avoidable crisis. Most importantly, we have prioritised investing in, maintaining and upgrading the electricity distribution infrastructure to avoid outages due to local breakdown.
The City of Cape Town also maintains and utilises the Steenbras pumped-storage scheme to supplement electricity supply during periods of peak demand. This means the City is sometimes able to avoid load-shedding or remain on a lesser stage than Eskom requires. And the City is investing in a natural gas distribution network to increase energy supply and resilience.
Only mass action can compel the national government to take the five steps needed to avert a total collapse of our electricity system. That is why I am calling for a National Day of Action on Friday, March 29. I urge every citizen who loves South Africa to join this mass call for radical reform to our system.
Of course, our most powerful action would be to cut off the ANC's power on May 8. At the end of the day, this crisis requires strong leadership that will stand up to union bosses and ensure change occurs. The advantage of the DA is that whilst we recognize the role of unions, they are not voting delegates at DA congresses.
- Mmusi Maimane is leader of the DA.
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