Hardship, misery awaits millions of electricity consumers

The load shedding forces South Africans to pay more for the power they do not receive, which is still a breathtaking threat to ordinary life, says the writer. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

The load shedding forces South Africans to pay more for the power they do not receive, which is still a breathtaking threat to ordinary life, says the writer. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

Published Jan 17, 2023


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

Cape Town - The scale and damage of the body blow to South Africa are suddenly and shockingly real.

South African consumers face an enormous rise in their energy bills from April 1, following the National Energy Regulator of SA’s (Nersa) approval of an electricity tariff increase of 18.65% for 2023/2024.

Nersa also approved a 12.74% increase for 2024/2025, effective from April 1 of next year, which seemed spectacular when I listened to the announcement. This development means hardship for all and misery for millions.

It is an insufferable event, and no decent society can allow it to happen.

No wonder President Cyril Ramaphosa cancelled his trip to the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos this week due to the ongoing energy crisis. Presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said Ramaphosa was convening a meeting with leaders of political parties represented in Parliament, the National Energy Crisis Committee, and the Eskom board.

The magnitude of the latest leap in prices is unwelcome, but not unexpected. It has been signalled for months by the power utility’s high usage of emergency generating capacity, specifically its diesel generators, a lack of efficiency at Eskom’s coal-fired generation fleet, and the rolling stage 6 blackouts.

The load shedding forces South Africans to pay more for the power they do not receive, which is still a breathtaking threat to ordinary life.

But the impact will soon be more significant – and the effects more terrible. Municipalities will raise electricity levies in June as in previous years, even though many owe billions of rand to Eskom.

They will not upwardly revise the amount of the subsidised kilowatts to cushion indigent households whose buying power for essential goods and services is increasingly eroded by high inflation and chronic unemployment.

Instead, prices will soar yet again. An alarming prospect is about to become a chilling reality during the rest of the year.

Illegal connections are likely to spike, more households are likely to revert to dangerous open fires, and more children are likely to be admitted to hospital for burns.

No one should deceive themselves about either the scale or the urgency to fix the energy crisis in this country, including the unaffordable prices.

Least of all, a government whose ministers are so laid back about the damage to come that none of them spoke about any plans to upwardly revise the subsidised kilowatts or implement emergency plans to reduce the damage caused to the economy and livelihoods by power interruptions.

But if they do not realise that the life and temper of the nation have changed, they will soon find out as residents of Phoenix in Durban took to the streets on January 16 in protest after not having had electricity for more than 40 hours.

This inconvenience is nothing new in different parts of the country, as Eskom has warned us not to stock our fridges with too much food due to anticipated extended and frequent disruptions to the electricity supply.

Also, several high-profile leaders and influential lobby groups have threatened to take the government, Eskom, and Nersa to court over the load-shedding crisis.

In the not-very-distant days when energy prices rose more gently than they do now, it was possible to argue that the costs, although steep, could be managed without risking social breakdown.

Stock solutions included:

  • Encouraging changes in consumption patterns.
  • Promoting the use of energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances.
  • Targeting support at the most badly affected and high-energy consumers.

But those days are gone as load shedding has fast-tracked Eskom’s paying customers’ migration from the national electricity grid to private electricity generation.

Instead, the defaulting municipalities and government departments will make up a significant portion of Eskom’s customers in future.

These are morally unacceptable consequences and options in a civilised society that is supposed to work harmoniously to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

South Africa will again hold national and provincial elections in just over a year, and will have a new government.

Whether that government will be led by the ANC or ANC-dominated provincial coalitions, it will have to do far more on day one and in the coming months than the current Ramaphosa administration has yet acknowledged.

The current pledges – restoring management and oversight in Eskom, moving Eskom from the Department of Public Enterprises to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, and more cash bailouts –are wholly inadequate responses.

The latest cancellation of an international trip by the president is not merely irrelevant to solving the load-shedding crisis. It will most likely worsen the situation as global investors continue losing confidence in South Africa as an attractive investment destination.

Long-term answers – more renewables and a sustained energy efficiency drive free of undue state interference – are essential parts of the response.

But this is now an immediate crisis, and we cannot solve it until we fully transform the energy supply market and the elite in government in line with the ANC’s policy documents. It requires immediate action as well as generational change.

Energy prices must be affordable to most people and to businesses that are essential to growing the economy.

The cost of doing this must come from charging affordable rates to all users and redirecting taxes to develop the necessary infrastructure.

This is what other countries worldwide are doing, and South Africa must do so, too.

In an ideal world, this would be achieved by extensive and targeted progressive green electricity connections focused on poorer households, including those encouraged to start small business enterprises such as welding and mechanical repairs.

In our world, however, a more practical alternative is to prioritise an increase in the subsidised kilowatts to ensure that even the social grant recipients can keep lights on throughout the month.

To govern is to choose, it is often said. This is such a moment. The ANC government must match the crisis with a big and bold intervention to cap and cushion the electricity tariff increases.

It must urgently implement plans to stop the load shedding. Nothing else will do. If it remains in denial, it will have to give way to a government that is willing to do what is required.

Nyembezi is a researcher, policy analyst and human rights activist

Cape Times