Mamphela Ramphele: Needs of the majority must be top priority

We need to learn from our fellow African countries such as Kenya that are leading the charge to become high performers in the renewable energy space, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

Good news is in short supply these days, but there are hidden gems if one looks beyond the gloom and doom. Importantly, there are amazing stories of success in unexpected places.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced plans to move the country to 100% green energy by 2020, as it scales up renewable investment. With an eye on sustainable development, Kenyatta aims to help mitigate climate change by reducing Kenya's carbon footprint, while creating much-needed jobs.

The move comes as the country looks to triple the number of people connected to its power grid, to reach 60% of the population. Africa's largest single wind power facility is currently being developed at Lake Turkana in Kenya's Rift Valley, with separate investments to develop other wind power plants. An estimated 9 million Kenyan households have access to off-grid renewable energy and this figure is set to rise.

So what has Kenya managed to do that has eluded other African countries? The secret seems to be decentralisation of development processes to the county level, thus allowing deeper participatory planning informed by local needs of communities. Even more amazing is that Kenya having adopted a constitutional dispensation modelled on our own after the bloody conflicts related to past election campaigns and their outcomes, has succeeded more to make democracy work at local levels than we have thus far managed to do.

READ: Kenya opens Africa's largest wind power project

What did they do with their constitution that we have yet to do? A Kenyan performance art and storytelling expert, Prof Mshai Mwangola, a civil society activist and academic attending the Social Justice Forum led by Prof Thuli Madonsela of Stellenbosch University two weeks ago, explained how civil society organisations operated. They followed up their success in getting Kenya to adopt much needed constitutional reforms, with civic education county by county, to enable citizens to hold their leaders accountable for delivering on election promises. Ordinary Kenyan citizens are growing in confidence that their voices matter in shaping public policy and its implementation.

President Cyril Ramaphosa's District Development model offers us opportunities to learn from Kenya how to get the needs and voices of ordinary citizens to shape how we tackle critical public policy and development challenges. Our commitments to a just energy transition process, are undermined by the disproportionate attention accorded to the voice of organised labour in comparison to the voices of the majority of citizens who are confined to the margins of society: rural people, women and young people.

Tackling poverty, inequality and unemployment is not possible without paying attention to the needs of the majority of citizens and freeing their human potential to become contributors to shared prosperity.

Imagine if many more civil society activists, academics and faith-based communities were to accompany the president's pilot areas to ensure that civic education reaches every citizen. Such a process would embed Ubuntu (human rights) values in all social relationships in broken communities, schools and farming communities.

A foundation for mutual respect and lower conflict

A shared value system as spelt out in our Constitution would help raise trust levels in our society as a platform for healthier and safer communities. This would lay the foundation for mutual respect and lower conflict and violence in our society. Trust is essential for sustaining collaboration and mutual support to forge inclusive development. Enhancing education; promoting well-being; developing renewable energy programs suitable for a diversity of districts; enhancing regenerative livelihoods, restoring damaged environments and water sources. The possibilities are endless.

South Africa was a pioneer in establishing frameworks for Public Private Partnerships with our much-lauded Independent Power Producer model that was the envy of many across the globe. We have however fallen behind over the last few years in implementing the just energy transition to renewables we committed to, due to the derailment occasioned by state capture and other nefarious sabotage within the public service.

Is this not the time to recalibrate and give renewable energy the space for acceleration within our District Development model? This would significantly help us to tackle the pressing problems of job creation, energy hunger and restoring our degraded natural environments in the poorest rural areas of our country. The job creation and livelihood enhancement opportunities would be massive. 

We also need to follow the advice of the 2017 Biennial Report the Academy of Science of South Africa to Cabinet on the State of Climate Change in SA. Their advice is for our government to better and more consistently leverage our rich national endowment of some of the best climate scientists, technology experts and professionals in the world in the implementation of our national plans. The report also recommended better collaboration with the private sector to accelerate investments in renewable energy projects to affect the just transition we are committed to.

There is no reason why high energy consumers such as the mining industry cannot be encouraged to build renewable energy plants to supply their own energy and contribute to the grid. Many business leaders are disappointed by the long delays to get licences to build and run such plants. Why are these delays allowed to undermine our progress?

The restructuring of Eskom into the three components of generation, transmission and distribution is a critical success factor to enable a seamless, decentralised and collaborative energy model, for the benefit of all end-users and to connect all citizens to electrical power. Struggling municipalities need to be weaned off revenue models that rely on selling electricity at inflated prices to fund their operational expenses. Much of these revenues go into the continued high levels of wasteful expenditure reported by the auditor general annually over the last decades. Municipalities need to be held accountable for the widespread wilful poor governance that is deepening the poverty and inequity holding poor people hostage across our nation.

Empowered citizens can free themselves from corruption

Civil society organisations need to work together to insist on schools, workplaces, faith communities and the public service across the nation to roll out civic education programs to empower citizens with the knowledge of their rights and responsibilities. Empowered citizens would free themselves from being prisoners of corrupt elites by insisting on those guilty to be held accountable, including removal from public service.

Those not willing to be servants of the people, should not be allowed to undermine our national goals. The structural violence of corruption and state capture have become breeding grounds for the high levels of crimes and violence in our society.

We need to learn from our fellow African countries such as Kenya that are leading the charge to become high performers in the renewable energy space. Overcoming legacy problems is difficult, but it is a pre-requisite to becoming successful attaining sustainable socio-economic development, technological advances and the promotion of well-being and shared prosperity in the 21st century.

- Mamphela Ramphele is the co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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