If, back in the 1990s, government had chosen to spend billions of rands on new power stations instead of armaments, South Africa would not now be facing an electricity crisis, DA leader Helen Zille said on Friday.

"It chose to spend billions of rands on arms that we do not need (and in some cases do not have the capacity to use) instead of adequately investing in infrastructure to lay the basis for long-term economic growth," she said in her Democratic Alliance's weekly on-line newsletter.

The African National Congress government had certainly known about an impending power crisis from at least the mid to late Nineties.

"In 1998, the department of minerals and energy released a detailed energy review. It explicitly warned that unless 'timely steps taken to ensure that demand does not exceed available supply capacity', generating capacity would reach its limit by 2007.

"It added that the next decision on supply-side investments would have to be taken by the end of 1999. This review was ignored," Zille said.

Instead of ensuring the development of the required infrastructure, the government had instructed Eskom to stop building power stations in the vain hope that the deregulation of power generation would encourage private investors to build the stations.

"I must stress that deregulation, in itself, is not a bad thing. If it had been implemented with the requisite foresight, we may not be in the quagmire we find ourselves in today.

"The problem was that government did not consider the barriers to entry for independent producers in this market."

One such barrier was extensive red tape; the other was the price of electricity was too low for private investors to get a decent return.

"Meanwhile, following a similar review of defence needs in the late 1990s, government committed to a massive and costly revamp of South Africa's armaments complement, despite there being no obvious threat to our country's security."

When the names of preferred armaments suppliers were announced in 1998, the projected cost was R30-billion over 12 years, a figure that had since doubled.

"And while the ANC government was committing to this deal, it dismissed and ignored warnings of the looming energy crisis," Zille said.

She noted that bas recently as early 2006, President Thabo Mbeki had assured Parliament there was no electricity crisis.

"There is no crisis... We shouldn't frighten ourselves too much... We shouldn't be threats to local and foreign investors that something disastrous is going to happen with regard to energy and therefore, they must be on their toes," Mbeki had said at the time.

He had further added he saw "no purpose" in setting up a commission to investigate government's failure to meet South Africa's energy needs".

Within months these words had come back to haunt him, as Eskom embarked on what it termed "load shedding".

"The president has now apologised for the crisis. Alec Erwin has today conceded that government did get it wrong, but that the country was 'a victim of its own success' and the government could not have anticipated the increased demand for electricity.

"This is a blatant untruth, given that Cabinet knew in 1998 that more power stations needed to be built if the economy was to grow at a projected rate of 4.2 percent."

The fact of the matter was government had refused to heed advice that South Africa would face crippling power shortages, unless something was done.

"Why the government chose to ignore the impending crisis is still not clear, but whatever the reason, there is little doubt that the government prioritised guns over butter."

South Africans must now face the reality of power cuts becoming the norm at least until 2013," Zille said. - Sapa