South Africa has declared a national state of disaster over the country’s worst-ever spate of rolling blackouts, as the government scrambles to remove obstacles to investing in energy supply outside the broken Eskom power monopoly.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the measure would take immediate effect during a state of the nation address on Thursday, as he warned that the power cuts that have hit Africa’s most industrial nation every day this year were “an existential threat to our economy and our social fabric”.
Eskom has had to cut off swaths of customers for up to 10 hours per day in recent months in order to prevent the accelerating collapse of ageing coal power plants, the mainstay of South Africa’s power network, turning into a total grid breakdown.
As a result, Ramaphosa’s governing African National Congress is facing the wrath of South Africans in national elections next year, as factories grind to a halt, crops wither without irrigation and food rots in refrigerators.
“Our most immediate task is to dramatically reduce the severity of load shedding in the coming months,” Ramaphosa said, using a local term for the cuts. He pledged support for Eskom, which has low funds for crucial maintenance and is battling the looting of power plants.
Ramaphosa’s government has already made ambitious policy changes to unleash private power production outside Eskom, but experts and investors have warned that these will take years to bear fruit.
The declaration of a disaster “will enable us to exempt critical infrastructure such as hospitals and water treatment plants from load shedding . . . it will enable us to accelerate energy projects and limit regulatory requirements”, Ramaphosa said.
He promised that funds would not be abused under cover of the disaster, acknowledging public fury at corruption and mismanagement suffered when South Africa declared similar emergency provisions over the Covid-19 pandemic.
South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance said the state of disaster would “empower the ANC to abuse procurement processes and issue nonsensical regulations that have nothing to do with the electricity crisis”. The party pledged to challenge the measure in court.
Ramaphosa, who also touted prospects for local electric vehicle manufacturing in Thursday’s speech, “talked of electric cars in a country that does not have electricity”, the DA added. “He talked of hope in a country that has lost all hope.”
The president said he would appoint a dedicated minister for electricity directly reporting to him “to assume full responsibility for overseeing all aspects of the electricity crisis response”.
Eskom would, however, remain under the control of the cabinet minister overseeing state-owned companies, Ramaphosa said. It was unclear how the yet-to-be-named electricity minister would work alongside the energy minister, who controls power procurement by the state.