Ramaphosa under pressure to delegate powers to electricity minister to avoid winter blackouts

President Cyril Ramaphosa is under pressure to transfer powers to his electricity minister, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, to prevent more intense blackouts as winter approaches. Two months after Ramokgopa’s appointment, it remains unclear which capacities will be transferred from the energy and public enterprises ministries to the new office. Control over energy procurement from independent producers and generation capacity would enable the minister to avoid longer outages, a government official said. State power utility Eskom is currently implementing stage 6 loadshedding, but the worst-case scenario is stage 8 load-shedding unless action is taken, the official added.

Ramaphosa Energy Czar Powerless as Winter Blackouts Loom

By S’thembile Cele

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is facing increasing pressure to hand powers to his new electricity minister and enable him to make decisions to stave off more intense blackouts as peak winter demand looms.

Two months after Ramaphosa appointed Kgosientsho Ramokgopa to the post, the president has yet to clarify what capacities he will transfer from the energy and public enterprises ministries, which have responsibility for policy and the state electricity company respectively, to the new office.

Control over energy procurement from independent producers and generation capacity, among other functions, would enable the minister to stave off the possibility of longer outages in the coming months, according to a government official.

State power utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. is currently implementing so-called stage 6 loadshedding — removing 6,000 megawatts from the grid and effectively leaving residents without power for at least 10 hours a day. In a worst-case scenario, South Africa faces five months of more severe outages — or stage 8 load-shedding — unless there is an intervention, the official said.

Read more: Eskom has received nearly half a trillion rand in bailouts since loadshedding began

“The outlook looks really bleak because demand is going to increase exponentially,” Ramokgopa was quoted as saying by state broadcaster SABC on Friday. “The grid continues to be unreliable and that’s the question that requires our attention.”

Africa’s most-industrialized nation has been subjected to rolling power cuts almost every day this year as Eskom, which supplies about 90% of the country’s electricity, fails to meet demand from its dilapidated plants. The crisis is eroding the nation’s economic-growth prospects, disrupting supply chains and stoking inflation.

Finalizing Powers

While Ramaphosa’s administration has maintained that a complete collapse of the nation’s electricity grid is unlikely, some government members are advocating for a contingency plan to be put in place and made public as power cuts may intensify in the winter, the official said.

Ramokgopa pitched a proposal to the cabinet on Wednesday in which he laid out the options the government must consider to curb the crippling power cuts. They include exemptions for pollution emissions, extending the lifespan of coal-fired power stations, along with sourcing new funding to recapitalize Eskom and procure emergency power.

Read more: SA braces for critical levels of loadshedding this winter – here are the likely scenarios, including dreaded stage 8

A further assessment of the proposals will be considered by the National Energy Crisis Committee at a meeting that will be convened “as speedily as possible,” acting government spokesman Michael Currin said in a statement on Wednesday.

A year before voters go to the polls in a general election, public anger is growing about the government’s inability to deliver basic services.

Read More: Eskom seeks to increase pollution – could kill hundreds

Ramaphosa’s decision to appoint an electricity minister was widely seen as a way to avoid dealing with ongoing tensions between Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and Mineral and Energy Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe — two of his close political allies — over who has responsibility for energy. Usurping power from the energy minister risks leaving Ramaphosa without the political protection provided by Mantashe in his powerful position as chairman of the governing Africa National Congress.

Ramaphosa is finalizing what powers will be given to Ramokgopa and there’s no timeline on when a decision will be taken, presidency spokesman Vincent Magwenya said by text message on Thursday.

The extreme power cuts have resulted in Ramaphosa’s approval rating plunging in recent months, according to a Social Research Foundation poll published this week.

Ramokgopa, a member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, is expected to present the plan he proposed to cabinet at a meeting of the party’s top leadership that gets under way on Friday. He’ll use the meeting to lobby allies within the NEC to impress upon Ramaphosa the need to be decisive about delegating the powers he needs, the official said.