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Load shedding reprieve is something to applaud

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OPINION: This past week Electricity and Energy Minister Kgosientso Ramokgopa, announced 100 days without load shedding. Some may scoff but for workers, their families and the economy this is something to applaud, writes Cosatu general-secretary Solly Phetoe.

Solly Phetoe is general-secretary of Cosatu. File picture

By Solly Phetoe

IT’S NATURAL to lose sight of important achievements and fail to say well done to those who make them possible.

This past week Electricity and Energy Minister Kgosientso Ramokgopa announced 100 days without load shedding. Some may scoff but for workers, their families and the economy this is something to applaud.

In 2023, we reached rock bottom with 12 hours of load shedding a day. It was suffocating the economy and threatening thousands of jobs.

Under the leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa we have seen a massive turnaround. While we are not out of the woods yet and Eskom remains fragile, the progress is remarkable.

We must commend not only the president and the government led by the ANC, but most importantly the employees of Eskom, the mineworkers who provide the coal, and the municipal workers and electricians who maintain the infrastructure.

We owe them our gratitude and hope that when it comes time for salary increases and performance bonuses, their efforts will be justly recognised.

The causes of this painful chapter are well known… From underinvestment in infrastructure to the decade of state capture when looting was facilitated on an industrial scale by some of the most powerful persons in government, Eskom and the private sector, and an explosion of cable theft by criminal syndicates.

What matters most is what must be done to ensure the dark days of load shedding are over and we turn Eskom into the engine of the economy’s growth.

Eskom’s challenges and the threats they posed to workers motivated Cosatu to draft the Eskom Social Compact in 2019, which was later signed by government, business and labour at Nedlac.

Many criticised Cosatu for taking on this initiative yet history has proved this was the correct path.

Key to the Social Compact was relieving Eskom of its suffocating debt burden, peaking at nearly R500 billion. National Treasury has taken over R254 billion of the debt, giving invaluable breathing space to the utility to shift revenue from servicing debt to ramping up maintenance.

This money is not lost, as the state will recover it through taxes as the economy grows.

Eskom with the support of ministers Ramokgopa, Pravin Gordhan, Gwede Mantashe and Barbara Creecy decisively ramped up maintenance as the fastest way to ending load shedding.

Key to this was the return to service of units at Medupi, Kusile and Koeberg. Each of their units is equal to nearly one stage of load shedding.

Load shedding has been eased by new generation capacity. It is critical Eskom be supported in investing in its own new generation capacity, in particular renewable energy to allow it to reduce its emissions and costs and ensure its sustainability.

This will enable it to remain the anchor of the nation’s electricity supply and its industrial growth.

Eskom has announced plans to invest in 101 transformers unlocking 53GW over the next decade. Local manufacturers will be utilised for these investments.

The State of the Nation Address committed to investing in 14 000km of new transmission lines, unlocking renewable energy generation. This is game-changing stuff.

Much more needs to be done to tackle entrenched levels of criminality from supply chain corruption at Eskom to coal suppliers delivering low-grade coal to criminal syndicates stripping copper cables. These require giving the police and the National Prosecuting Authority the resources and personnel they need to win this war.

The government and Eskom have done well to stabilise our electricity supply, allowing the economy to recover and workers to get paid. The next phase, already under way is about turning our electricity set-up from a liability to an enabler for economic growth, job creation and slashing poverty and inequality.

These need to be framed in a Just Energy Transition (JET) geared towards the lived experiences and material working conditions of the coal miner eMalahleni; the family of the migrant worker at Idutywa; the Eskom technician at Komati; the sheep farmer in Kenhardt; and the municipal electrician in Cape Town.

It cannot be imposed by bureaucrats in the industrialised north. South Africa has a triple challenge of a shortage of reliable and affordable electricity, accelerating climate change and a dangerously high unemployment rate of 42%.

A JET if done in a smart and progressive manner that embraces the needs of affected workers and host communities and value chains can address these simultaneously. We do not have the luxury of choosing which crisis to tackle and which to ignore.

Eskom must be enabled to enter renewable energy not only as a procurer but also as a generator. Working-class homes must be supported by the government to install solar panels to reduce household expenditure on electricity, and improve their ability to take care of their families.

Renewable technologies must be designated for local manufacturing and the government’s industrial financing geared to support local companies producing these for the domestic market, and export to Africa.

We must resist rushing to import at the expense of our industrialisation and economic development.

Pension and investment funds must embrace investing in government infrastructure and bonds; local manufacturing; and generation. These are workers’ pension funds and must be used to grow the economy and create jobs and thus ease the burden on workers supporting on average seven unemployed relatives.

This is a journey we travelled – from the dark chapter of state capture and load shedding, and if smart can we can exploit this moment to not only satisfy our electricity needs but also those of the SADC region; that create and do not destroy jobs, that unlock investments in both the sun and wind-rich Cape provinces but also those of our coal-endowed Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

It will be a tragedy if we fail to utilise this moment in history. Key to this is to ensure this is a journey led and owned not only by the government and business but most importantly by labour and ordinary communities.

Cosatu and its affiliates will continue to play their part in ensuring this is a just transition that benefits all workers and communities.

* Solly Phetoe is the general-secretary of Cosatu.

– BUSINESS REPORT

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