South Africa’s president said Thursday the coal-dependent country will turn to more renewable energy as one way to help ease power cuts that have “severely set back” efforts to rebuild the weak economy. But he warned of more blackouts in the immediate future.
South Africans have been outraged by rolling power cuts in the current mid-summer that also have worried investors. The country relies on coal for some 77% of power needs, according to the department of energy, and some citizens were astounded when officials blamed “wet coal” in part for the blackouts.
The outages are just the latest grievance in a country with 29% unemployment, widespread corruption and certain state-owned companies teetering on the edge of collapse. The economy is estimated to grow by less than 1% this year, and more than half of young people are without jobs.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech was delayed by an hour and a half as lawmakers with the populist Economic Freedom Fighters party told him to sit down and argued that the public enterprises minister, Pravin Gordhan, should step down.
“We can’t gather like normal here when things are abnormal,” EFF spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi called out. Party members later walked out of the chamber.
Ramaphosa quickly acknowledged South Africa’s problems. “Our economy has not grown at any meaningful rate for over a decade,” he said, and “our public finances are under severe pressure.”
The president warned that the “debilitating” power blackouts will continue as the struggling power utility, Eskom, makes needed changes including long-delayed maintenance.
“Over the next few months as Eskom works to restore its operational capabilities, we will be implementing measures that will fundamentally change the trajectory of energy generation in our country,” Ramaphosa said.
Among the solutions the government is pursuing is allowing commercial and industrial users to generate their own electricity and allowing municipalities to purchase electricity from independent power producers. South Africa also will purchase more from existing wind and solar plants.
“We undertake this decisive shift in our energy trajectory at a time when humankind faces its greatest existential threat in the form of climate change,” the president said, and he vowed to finalize the Climate Change Bill with its framework to reduce the country’s vulnerability to global warming.
Ramaphosa’s term that began when the ruling African National Congress won last year’s elections with its weakest victory ever has been challenging. He has promised to eradicate corruption after his predecessor resigned amid scandal and has vowed to turn around the economy and create jobs for millions of people.
But Ramaphosa faces growing calls to provide clear solutions for the country’s pressing issues.
Many state-owned enterprises, including South African Airways, now rely on government bailouts for survival.
“After years of … corruption and mismanagement, we are working to ensure that all SOEs are able to fulfil their developmental mandate and be financially sustainable,” the president said.
The economy remains grim. “Low levels of growth mean that we are not generating enough revenue to meet our expenses, our debt is heading towards unsustainable levels and spending is misdirected towards consumption and debt-servicing rather than infrastructure and productive activity,” Ramaphosa said. “We cannot continue along this path.”
He promised not to let up in the fight against corruption but acknowledged that efforts so far have “not been enough to free our economy from the grim inheritance of our past, nor from the mistakes that we ourselves have made.”