South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed the country’s first-ever minister of electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, to tackle the worst-ever electricity crisis being experienced in the country. Millions of people are without lights daily for up to 10 hours in cities and towns across South Africa, which has caused much frustration, not least on the roads where traffic lights often do not work, causing gridlock. The situation has forced some beggars and homeless people to take responsibility for directing traffic, which raises questions about the government’s role in addressing the issue.
The worsening power cuts are a new reality for many and are anxiety-inducing, with frequent reports of burglaries, car hijackings, and communication difficulties as mobile phone networks often go down. Those who cannot afford alternative sources of power like generators have to contend with cold dinners and homework with a lamp or candle. The impact on the economy has been huge, with businesses closing down, and jobs being lost as production costs rise due to the need for backup power. Only two days in the last quarter of 2022 were without power cuts.
Ramokgopa has a reputation for being a technocrat who prefers working behind the scenes, having served in provincial and local government, and most recently as the head of investment and infrastructure in the president’s office. However, he now faces the daunting task of dealing with the problems at South Africa’s only power company, state-owned Eskom, which is collapsing under the weight of an aging coal fleet, rampant corruption, sabotage by criminal cartels, and a leadership crisis.
The Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, and the Minister of Public Enterprise, Pravin Gordhan, are already working on the crisis. However, both are veteran politicians with differing opinions, and Ramokgopa will need to get them to agree and even overrule them if necessary. Some analysts see Ramokgopa as a super minister who will require the full backing of the president to end the turf wars in his cabinet and achieve energy security for South Africa.
Ramaphosa has described Ramokgopa as a “transitory” minister, suggesting that the post may be scrapped at some point. However, his job is to ensure that the lights stay on in South Africa. Although the president has not set a deadline, the governing African National Congress (ANC) has spoken of sorting out the power crisis by the end of the year, which is an ambitious target. Parliamentary elections are due next year, and the ANC’s support is likely to dwindle if the blackouts continue, making the situation a pressing concern.
The challenges are enormous, and the economy is suffering, with the GDP shrinking in the last quarter of 2022. Overall, the economy grew by only 2% last year, which is not enough to bring down the unemployment rate of 33%. South Africans are hoping that the situation improves, and Ramokgopa can provide a solution to the ongoing crisis.