As many have pointed out, declaring a national state of disaster over South Africa’s load shedding shambles is an admission of failure on the government’s part.
Seven months after implementing the National Energy Action Plan intended to eliminate the power crisis, load shedding has worsened.
The optics of placing Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in charge of this latest national disaster reflect internal ANC politicking rather than a focus on the overall good of the country.
She will forever be remembered as the minister who stomped on the faces of thousands of businesses and millions of workers during the Covid lockdowns with bans on the sale of open-toed shoes and hot cooked food.
You can still see the fingerprints of her overreach in the empty shops at malls around the country.
Government just got bigger, and costlier
In his State of the Nation Address last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a new Ministry of Electricity as a central point of control to better manage the energy crisis.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan will continue to represent the state as Eskom’s shareholder, and it is not yet known what role mines and energy minister Gwede Mantashe will play in this. Just last month it was announced that Eskom was to be moved from Public Enterprises to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, placing it under Mantashe’s purview.

How this would solve the problem of load shedding is unclear, as it places Eskom in the hands of the same ministry responsible for competition and regulation. How could this possibly fail?

South Africans are right to be concerned when government announces a bold new restructuring plan, as it has just done with the new Ministry of Electricity. There are offices to fill, staff to employ and committees to be formed.
It all sounds so tedious, and could cost close to R40 million to set up, says the Democratic Alliance (DA).
There is a hint of desperation in the disaster declaration, acknowledging that a total blackout is what awaits us unless the electricity crisis is reversed. That might be a remote possibility, but it cannot be discounted.
Last month the US embassy in Pretoria reportedly advised US and other businesses operating in SA to start thinking about disaster management plans in the event of a total grid collapse.
Should that happen, it would take six to 14 days to restart the power grid, and we could expect mayhem of the kind witnessed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July 2021, when rioters ran amok, supposedly over the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma.
Read: Santam and Hollard pull cover for grid failure
The last time SA suffered a near total blackout was in December 1975. This was due not to lack of generating capacity but a shockwave from a faulty relay that disconnected the Western and Eastern Cape from the grid. It was rebooted within four days, thanks largely to the Camden Power Station surviving the outage. This time it would take a lot longer to restart the grid, given the current shortage of generating capacity.

This is where we have arrived: discussing the potential of a grid collapse and mass looting.

The DA and trade union Solidarity have already announced that they intend to challenge the national state of disaster in court, while civil society will likely follow suit should the regulations harm business or human rights in any way.
“The DA will not give the ANC unfettered power to loot without parliamentary oversight. The illegal use of taxpayer money must end,” the party tweeted on Friday.

The very team responsible for the electricity disaster will be in charge of the recovery, says Gerhard Papenfus, CEO of the National Employers Association of SA.

“The same ideology, the same hostility towards real private enterprise, the same craving for self-enrichment, will still be prevalent in the team. Unless that changes, recovery will remain a struggle,” he says.
“After years of disappointment, we will be naive to give them, once again, the benefit of the doubt.”
‘Why we wanted this’
Professor Sampson Mamphweli, head of the Department of Science and Innovation’s energy secretariat at the SA National Energy Development Institute, gave some insight into the rationale for the state of disaster declaration on SABC News.
“This is something we have been calling for,” he said, adding that Eskom’s delay in returning downed units to service is due in part to its inability to procure needed parts and resources with the requisite speed.

This is something the state of disaster will supposedly cure. But as the DA and others have pointed out, it could be achieved with far less draconian tools.

For example, declaring a state of emergency ring-fenced around Eskom only and stripping away bureaucratic knots that hog-tie proper functioning of the utility.
What should we expect?
Many South Africans will be wondering whether curfews will be back on the nightly menu now that a national disaster has been declared. This is unlikely, but not impossible.

South Africans should also be concerned that National Treasury will be called upon to throw open the funding spigot under the state of disaster regulations in the name of fixing the electricity problem.

We saw what happened with the massive fraud around protective gear during Covid, so it’s not unreasonable to assume similar malign forces will be jockeying for advantage this time around, notwithstanding Ramaphosa’s assurances of financial oversight by the Auditor-General.
Auditors look at events after they have happened, so this move may be too late to stop any potential fraud.
Business Unity SA (Busa) broadly welcomed the declaration of a state of disaster as a sign that government is taking the electricity crisis more seriously, but is concerned that it could use it to trample the rights of ordinary South Africans.
Mamphweli boldly predicts that load shedding will be gone within 12 to 24 months, perhaps 30.
It’s a moving feast, and a little too vague to be counted on for anything.
Sign of things to come?
Perhaps the real danger is that we become inured to rule by disaster management, as pointed out by Dewald van Niekerk, head of North West University’s African Centre for Disaster Studies.
The Disaster Management Act was never intended for crises such as this, and the fact that it has again been summoned into service – as it was during Covid – assumes government is bereft of other, more suitable tools.
For example, if by-passing bureaucratic red tape for procurement is the objective, Mantashe could do that with relative ease by first convincing the National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) that a crisis does in fact exist. That should take no more than a week.
Read: Energy crisis: Resounding ‘No’ to state of disaster [8 Feb 2023]
Should the grid be stabilised before next year’s national elections, the government will be able to run a victory lap, pointing to the wisdom of invoking its disaster regulations.

The danger is that it becomes addicted to something that was intended for handling the immediate aftermath of an earthquake or hurricane.

This electricity crisis has been decades in the making.
There are simply too many potential disasters on the horizon, such as surging food prices, broken municipalities and erratic water supply, to leave management of this crisis in the hands of the very people who helped create it.

There is frightening déjà vu in the latest national state of disaster – Moneyweb