South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa appointed his infrastructure and investment adviser as electricity minister to lead a battle against intense rolling power cuts that are threatening to end the long rule of his African National Congress in elections next year.
Kgosientsho Ramokgopa will co-ordinate the government response to the collapse of the Eskom electricity monopoly’s coal power plants that has driven the outages to up to 12 hours a day, Ramaphosa said in a televised address on Monday.
“The primary task of the new minister will be to significantly reduce the severity and frequency of [the blackouts] as a matter of urgency,” Ramaphosa said, announcing the appointment as part of his first cabinet reshuffle since he won re-election as leader of the ANC in December.
David Mabuza, Ramaphosa’s deputy president for five years, gave way in the reshuffle to Paul Mashatile, a powerbroker who was elected as the ANC’s deputy leader in December.
Ramokgopa, the president’s infrastructure tsar since 2019, “will work with the Eskom leadership to turn around the performance of existing power stations and accelerate the procurement of new generation capacity”, he added.
The reshuffle could be the last before national elections in 2024 in which Ramaphosa’s party could face defeat over the power crisis. Recent polls have put the ANC’s support at about 40 per cent, far below the majorities that it has reliably won since it first gained power in 1994.
Ramaphosa’s pledges to fix Africa’s most industrialised economy have been overshadowed by the worsening of the rolling blackouts and recriminations over the roots of the crisis, particularly the role of the ANC in the alleged looting of Eskom’s resources.
André de Ruyter, Eskom’s outgoing chief executive, claimed in a recent television interview that he told senior officials about the alleged involvement of at least one high-level politician in the plunder of Eskom power stations by criminal syndicates. De Ruyter also criticised interference by ministers in Eskom’s attempt at a turnround.
The allegations sparked de Ruyter’s immediate removal and the threat of legal action against him by the ANC, which has also blamed him for poor management of the power fleet. The politician has not been named.
Last month Ramokgopa called the rolling blackouts “no longer a crisis, but rather an emergency”, in a paper that called for a radical overhaul of public investment in infrastructure, which has shrunk in recent years.
Basic services such as water, as well as electricity provision, are corroding because of the “haemorrhaging of technical and financial engineering skills in the country, the collapse of institutions and the dire ramifications of state capture” or systemic looting of government resources, he added.
Analysts are sceptical that the electricity minister will do much to fix Eskom and say that the position will instead add to confusion over who is responsible for the utility, where several ministries and state bodies have an interest.
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s national chair, an ally of Ramaphosa, and a strong backer of coal despite Eskom’s troubles, remained energy minister in the reshuffle. Pravin Gordhan, the minister directly overseeing state companies such as Eskom, also stayed in place.
Ramokgopa “has been brought to the helm of the biggest crisis in South Africa today” but he may end up clashing with Mantashe’s and Gordhan’s ministries, Thandile Chinyavanhu, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, warned.
Ramaphosa said on Monday that Ramokgopa would be given powers “to deal with the challenge of fragmentation of responsibility”.
Private power producers, in particular, are seeking clarity on oversight of the grid and other key assets as they race to bring their own projects online.