Fighting Darkness; South Africa’s State of the Nation Address 2023

It is not just the usual victim from the bottom socio-economic strata who is crying foul. It is also the rich whose businesses and lives have been inconvenienced.

Fighting Darkness; South Africa’s State of the Nation Address 2023

We are a country that is fighting darkness, literally and metaphorically. The path to light is obstructed by a horde of individuals who are one with darkness. They are willing to fight tooth and nail to see that light does not shine upon the land. We are a nation under threat primarily from the darkness of man's heart.

The president in his speech identified the following as key issues:

  • Reducing unemployment
  • Reducing poverty and the rising cost of living
  • Combating crime
  • Corruption
  • Load shedding crisis

This year's SONA comes at a time when cancer has spread to parts it had not gravely affected before. It is not just the usual victims from the bottom socio-economic strata who are crying foul. It is also the rich whose businesses and lives are being inconvenienced by the energy crisis. Often this group has found a way to create an elite enclave.  They do not suffer from hunger; their silos are filled to the brim with grain. They have fortified their neighbourhoods from criminals. They have established schools that churn out excellent graduates, and hospitals that just about promise eternal life. However, this time load-shedding has everyone in a chokehold; we are all gasping for air.

The key issues stated above have been on the agenda for the longest time. It is fair to say the current government has failed to deal with crime, poverty and unemployment. The situation is just getting worse by the day. The ANC has had many years to resolve these issues.

The topical issue is the energy crisis. Did Ramaphosa say something impressive pertaining to the load-shedding crisis?

  • Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma had gazetted the declaration of the State of Disaster, which began with immediate effect.
  • He would expand his Cabinet by appointing a minister of electricity to the Presidency. The role of the minister would be to take full responsibility for overseeing all aspects of the electricity crisis response, including the work of the National Energy Crisis Committee.
  • This year, he would ensure the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill was passed to transform the energy sector and establish a competitive electricity market.

Regarding the first point, the president has the powers under the National Disaster Management Act to declare a crisis a National State of Disaster if existing legislation cannot adequately deal with the problem. The declaration gives the government powers to disburse resources to deal with the disaster, appoint experts to provide emergency services and bypass existing laws in the procurement and delivery of goods and services. Under the declaration, the president expects a fast rollout of generators and solar panels to ensure uninterrupted power supply for businesses in food production, storage and retail supply chains. It would also exempt critical infrastructure such as hospitals and water treatment plants from rolling blackouts and limit regulatory requirements in procurement.

A National State of Disaster was in effect not long ago for the purpose of responding to COVID-19. It allowed the president among other things, to restrict movement and disburse the 500 billion COVID-19 relief package. As usual, something intended for good was abused. An estimated R14 billion was lost in procurement corruption. Government officials were allocating tenders to politically connected individuals and family members and friends. What this simply teaches us is that while the National State of Disaster is meant to ensure efficiency and effective coordination of resources to swiftly deal with a crisis, it also creates an opportunity for corruption.

Mobilization of resources also entails gathering the best minds to help draft and implement solutions. Again, in this area things are tricky. Former Eskom CEO, Andre De Ruyter was a qualified man for the job with an incredible resume. Before resigning he had been clamping down on corruption and cutting off illicit revenue streams from procurement irregularities, fraud, theft and maladministration, both within Eskom and by certain of its suppliers and contractors. However, after Gwede Mantashe, the chairman and Mineral Resources & Energy minister publicly accused Eskom management of “agitating for the overthrow of the state” he packed his bags, and he almost left in a coffin after drinking from a cup laced with cyanide. Andre must have made enemies among those who had been profiteering from the things he was clamping down on. The same also happened to Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, Vice Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare. Ramaphosa commented on these two tragedies by stating, “It is concerning that those who have taken strong positions on issues of integrity and corruption may well be victims or targeted.”

Under these circumstances, the best minds (technocrats) in the country become hesitant to take up positions and help in dealing with disasters. We are a nation under threat primarily from the darkness of man's heart. Instruments such as the declaration of a National State of Disaster are supposed to rally financial and human resources to deal with challenges but they have become opportunities for looting.

News of the appointment of a Minister of Electricity is trending. Memes are circulating on social media. What do we make of this considering that Gwede is the minerals and energy minister? M & G did some reporting on this and this is what they found from interviews:

  • United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, who is taking the government to court for the impact of load-shedding on the country, questioned why there was a need for an additional minister. “Why can’t [the president] appoint a director general who is an engineer that will assist him in his office?”
  • Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse chief executive, Wayne Duvenhage, said a new minister would not solve the problem. “Now we have three ministries looking after Eskom and DMRE and the third ministry of electricity is just throwing people at the problem. It’s not dealing with the issues of inefficiencies in those two offices.”
  • Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Velenkosini Hlabisa said there was no need for a new minister as it would open opportunities for irrelevant portfolios. “We might end up with a minister of potholes, a minister of pit toilets. All we need is a minister that will deal with minerals and energy, and resolve the crisis around electricity.”
  • Business Leadership SA (BLSA) said that the appointment of a minister of electricity within the presidency to oversee the implementation of the energy action plan was a “bold move”, but also expressed concern that the energy sector would be governed by three ministries.
  • “Delineating clear responsibilities will be important, particularly between the ministers of energy and electricity. We hope the new minister will be able to accelerate the processes needed to address both the short-term imperative of addressing load-shedding and the longer-term need to increase the country’s electricity generation capacity at a faster pace,” BLSA said.
  • On Friday, Business Unity South Africa chief executive Cas Coovadia said the appointment of a minister for electricity in the office of the president is a bad idea that will add to the confusion and turf wars rather than solve the problem. “It is yet another example of failure to take bold decisions and opting instead for the soft, but expensive, option of adding another ministry rather than holding those ministers responsible for the crisis accountable.”

It seems the majority do not see much value in the move. What they simply desire is resolute action to solve the core issues affecting the energy sector, and the appointment of a minister of electricity just seems like more trouble and confusion to the disaster.

We are a nation under threat primarily from the darkness of man's heart. Corruption, greed, theft and the ordering of hits on people of integrity willing to use their expertise to resolve the crisis are our greatest challenges. The energy crisis would be resolved easily if it were not for these challenges.