South Africa’s State of the Nation: Disaster!

solutions to electricity crisis in South Africa

I’m sitting in a house in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg having just heard President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address to the South African Parliament and obviously, the rest of the country on TV. The main agenda was solutions to the electricity crisis in South Africa.

And I can’t quite believe what I’ve just heard.

First, he declared a ‘state of disaster’, an acknowledgement, at last, that the country’s economy is dying because of the collapse of the electricity grid.

A grid, by the way, that has been collapsing for twenty years. Then he announced he was appointing a Minister of Electricity to fix the problem.

Hang on a minute.

The President of South Africa is issuing a decree that by definition promises less bureaucracy to solve the problem.

Then, he’s adding an additional layer of bureaucracy to the very institution which caused the problem in the first place.

Don’t they call that an oxymoron?

No maybe not. Maybe it’s just called politics.

Politics vs. The People

It’s called politics while a national economy is reduced to a four-hour workday because of loadshedding (the rather optimistic turn of phrase for rolling blackouts) and hence, losing four billion South African Rands every single one of those days.

It’s called politics while thousands and thousands of micro and small businesses go under, unable to cope with the loss of productivity and rising costs of raw materials. So far, we’re not seeing any solutions to the electricity crisis in South Africa.

As recently as 2019, South Africa had the highest per capita GDP of any large African country. It is still the only country on the continent that’s part of G20. It is a very important economy and geopolitically highly influential.

However, Mr. Ramaphosa’s utterances since his ascendence to power about broad-based community upliftment  and business recovery has been entirely flavored by “We will implement this…” and “We will change that…”, without any implementation and definitely no change. Of all the causes of the electricity crisis in South Africa, absolutely none have been addressed.

He paints the picture of a concerned leader as he outlines the radical changes to be made to the infrastructure of, well, everything in order to get the country back on its feet again.

And we want to believe him.

But as soon as we stop looking and listening with our hearts, and start digesting his narrative with our heads, that’s when we despair. 

I just had another look at the moment he announced this bold step into a better future.

I wanted to see just a hint of shame in his face. Just something, anything, that would confirm to me that there was a man talking to me, not a puppet.

I rewound and looked again. Nothing.

And then, of course, the lights went out.

R4 Billion Lost Every Day

South Africa is home to about two and a half million micro, small and medium sized businesses. 95% of these require connectivity. When the electricity goes, Wi-Fi goes. When Wi-Fi goes, these enterprises switch to cellphone connectivity. Around 35% of the country’s entire economy is being maintained during loadshedding by cell phone. That means prices go up. Mzanzi cannot afford rising prices, it is already struggling with rampaging crime and inflation.

How Much Longer?

For almost twenty years this has been going on while we’re constantly told about solutions to the electricity crisis in South Africa. This has not only created a business crisis in South Africa, but a crisis in local government crisis in South Africa, a CEO crisis in South Africa and all because of a corruption crisis in South Africa. You’ll forgive me if you’re looking at the word ‘crisis’ and ‘South Africa’ rather a lot. But the two have become synonymous and need constant repeating.

Even basic education was in crisis in South Africa 2019, around the same time as the inauguration speech of President Ramaphosa. This was around the time that it was discovered that 1.4 trillion was stolen from Eskom by employees and that an 11 billion Eskom recovery bill would be expected to be paid by the taxpayer.

A few weeks ago,  I found evidence of an attempted break-in at my home. Someone had bent a steel fence strut fence to get to the electric motor that opens the driveway gate. They could do this with a certain bravado because there were no street lights working.

After the unnerving sense of vulnerability gave way to logical thought, I realized that whoever had done this was not trying to break in. They were after the battery powering the gate motor, which they had successful removed.

The value of that battery was far greater than anything to be found in the house. So here we are; electricity as a government granted privilege or thieves’ gold.

Recently, Inside Telecom talked to William Mzimba, the business supremo of Vodacom, one of Africa’s telecoms giants. A man of great erudition, he spoke of the solutions to the challenges faced by the continent at large, not just South Africa. They were real, actionable and perhaps most important, full of well-founded optimism.

Tell that to the drivers stuck in a gridlock at one of Johannesburg’s busiest intersections. This, from a social media post yesterday.

Africa in Decay

Today at Grayston Drive…people were sitting in traffic due to loadshedding. Robbers approached them.

They forced people to hand over their cell phones in the traffic row by row.

Police arrived ages later.

It was bad. I didn’t go to work because of that.

Imagine you’re waiting in traffic and then BAM…a gun pointed at your face.

This country is disgusting.

It’s become something of a joke in South Africa that when people leave the country to go live, work and prosper somewhere else, they tend to start posting all the bad news about the country. This quite callous behavior is supposed to justify to everyone why they were justified in leaving. It’s callous because the friends they leave behind tend to feel just that; that they have been well and truly left behind. 

Wrap Up

Do not mistake this article for the above. South Africa has aways punched above its weight in terms of entrepreneurship. In healthcare, telecoms and financial innovations in banking and insurance, ideas and models created in the last thirty years have become global game changers. It’s precisely because of this spirit of invention that I’ve written this article. And to be transparent, some very important commercial entities from around the world are building data centers here, for example. But these are at complete odds with the amount of intelligent, skilled brainpower that’s moving out.  

Again, I refer to Inside Telecom’s interview with William Mzimba of Vodacom. “We need a connected Africa to create an intelligent Africa. We need an intelligent Africa to create a competitive Africa’. If I can prefix this marvelous quote with, “we need electricity to be a connected Africa.”

Mr. Ramaphosa, offer us real solutions to the electricity crisis in South Africa. Hand over responsibility for power generation to the private sector. And you will be responsible for the second rebirth of the rainbow nation.

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