South Africa’s load shedding crisis amplifies election dynamics

By Elena Kachkova in Johannesburg February 22, 2024

The recent escalation of power outages in South Africa, locally called load shedding, to Stage 6 underscores the profound impact of the energy crisis on this year’s elections, now set for May 29.

Stage 6 is the highest level of power cuts implemented by state-run utility Eskom, when the electricity demand exceeds the supply by 6,000 MW and power to different areas is cut for up to 18 hours a day on a rotating schedule.

Both the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) opposition parties are using load shedding as an effective tool in their 2024 election manifestos to turn up the heat on the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The timing of Eskom’s announcement of higher stages of load shedding could not have been more unfavourable for the ANC. It occurred between the State of the Nation Address (SONA) by the country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and the launch of the EFF’s election manifesto.

Moreover, the reaction from the ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula to the return of Stage 6 power outages highlighted a tendency towards emotional rather than rational responses within the ruling party, writes local media outlet Daily Maverick.

During his SONA speech on February 8, amidst Stage 2 load shedding, Ramaphosa expressed optimism about the imminent end of load shedding. However, within hours, Eskom escalated the situation to Stage 4, with Stages 6 and 5 introduced over the weekend.

Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa attributed the crisis largely to boiler tube leaks at several coal-fired power stations. This was exacerbated by unfavourable weather conditions characterised by minimal wind and sunlight, he said, which made it difficult to procure additional generation from renewable sources.

However, in the political arena, this latest setback quickly became an effective weapon in pushing various agendas.

EFF demands

On February 10, EFF leader Julius Malema unveiled his party’s manifesto, emphasising the centrality of load shedding to his campaign. The manifesto's slogan is succinct: “Our Land and Jobs Now. End Loadshedding!” 

EFF’s spokesperson Sinawo Tambo reaffirmed the party’s commitment to ending load shedding within six months if elected to national government. As part of their strategy, the EFF plans to enlist a cadre of engineers willing to assist in resolving the crisis, Daily Maverick reported.

“We must bring back industry experts who have been able to stop load shedding before,” Tambo told the national radio station SAfm on February 12. “And that is going to require all of us to sort of swallow our pride and accept that there were individuals who’ve been at Eskom, who’ve been able to put a stop to load shedding in South Africa before, and these people must be deployed there,” he said.

When asked if he was referring to former acting Eskom CEO Matshela Koko and former CEO Brian Molefe, he answered that he was not mentioning any names. “But we are going to have to be honest with ourselves that there are individuals who are industry experts who have been removed,” he was quoted as saying.

Koko and Molefe have both faced criminal charges over their roles at Eskom during the State Capture era. The high-profile ZAR2.2bn (about $116mn) corruption case against Eskom former executive Koko has been making headlines since 2020. It was struck off the roll in the Middleburg Specialised Commercial Crimes Court in November 2023 due to “unreasonable delays” after the National Prosecuting Authority’s Investigating Directorate (ID) requested yet another postponement.

DA claims

On February 17, the opposition’s Democratic Alliance (DA) party also launched its 2024 election manifesto. The DA has previously been a part of a series of court applications that resulted in a ruling that the ANC-led government was responsible for load shedding. In its new manifesto, the DA promises that its Rescue Plan for South Africa is not “a pie in the sky.” Creating 2mn new jobs and ending load shedding and water shedding are the top priorities in the DA’s list of seven objectives.

“Instead of a government that tells you it’s not the end of the world when load shedding makes you unemployed or destroys your business, you can vote for a new government that ends load shedding,” the DA says. 

ANC reaction

Of course, the fact that the ANC is responsible both for the start of load shedding and its continuation makes it vulnerable to these attacks, writes Daily Maverick. During the weekend of Stage 6 load shedding introduction, ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula tweeted on X: “Stage 6 load shedding clear sabotage. Strong extra security measures are needed.”

He later told ANC supporters in KwaZulu-Natal: “The state must not rule out the possibility of sabotage which is aligned to major events in the country. There are many questions that ordinary people like ourselves ask about load shedding and how it is happening, and those questions point to the direction that it is very clear there is sabotage.” Mbalula has given no evidence to back up his claims of sabotage but called on the state to “up its gear in terms of investigating and looking at particular possibilities.”

However, it is not clear what the ANC, or the government, could do to protect Eskom facilities from this alleged sabotage. It would be difficult for anyone outside power stations to cause any damage, as the state employs South African Defence Force (SADF) soldiers to protect Eskom power plants. It is much more likely that any such “sabotage” would come from people who work at the power stations, which would support claims made by former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter that there was widespread corruption at Eskom power stations.

De Ruyter alleged that acts of sabotage by employees at power plants were aimed at increasing the amount of work for contractors and the number of consumables that Eskom would have to use, thus generating inflated invoices for suppliers.

His claims were later substantiated with several arrests of managers and senior buyers at various power stations on charges of theft, fraud, and money laundering, as reported by bne Intellinews. It is worth pointing out, however, that the ANC was in the forefront of those who attacked De Ruyter at the time, for making these claims.

What to expect

Mbalula’s statement seems to directly contradict the explanations given for the recent escalation of load shedding by Eskom and Ramokgopa who attributed it to a series of boiler tube leaks. It does appear to be technically possible that one of the causes of these leaks is the use of mixed-quality coal, which can lead to abrasive forms of ash blowing through these tubes.

However, Vally Padayachee, a respected energy expert, does not believe that coal is the cause of these leaks, but rather a set of other maintenance problems. He also predicts there will be more incidents such as these, where a cluster of tube leaks occurs, leading to intense load shedding.

Regardless, Mbalula is likely to repeat his claims of sabotage, Daily Maverick reports, as the ANC continues to claim that severe load shedding is a deliberate attempt to weaken the party.

In December 2022, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, an ANC stalwart, claimed that intense load shedding implemented by Eskom, which was then led by André de Ruyter, was “akin to agitating for the overthrow of the state”.

Mantashe’s comment led directly to De Ruyter’s resignation from Eskom. More than a year later, the incoming CEO, Dan Marokane, has yet to start his term next month.

All of this underscores how dangerous this situation has become. When technical problems lead to load shedding, the response of the ruling party is to claim that it is the victim of sabotage, writes Daily Maverick, warning that those claims can then have dire consequences.

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