South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe: Blackouts to total darkness?

By Rejoice Ngwenya

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Posted on May 23, 2023 12:57

 © File photo of pylons that carry electricity from a coal fired power station in Hwange, Zimbabwe. (REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo)
File photo of pylons that carry electricity from a coal fired power station in Hwange, Zimbabwe. (REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo)

To observers, it’s incomprehensible that countries with active perennial waterways – via Zambezi River – teeter on the verge of energy poverty.

Electricity generation is meant to be a feat of simple engineering, though requiring substantial investment. Moreover, for countries that have eternally survived on high-end agriculture, deep mining and heavy industry, how is it that they find themselves in such a dire electricity deficiency?

It boils down to three factors: poor planning, corruption and despicable national governance.

Eskom errors

Take for instance South Africa, whose economic growth trajectory is globally acclaimed. It is inconceivable that local energy experts would have failed to accurately predict exponential demand for electricity. Eskom is one of the largest and oldest electricity companies in Southern Africa, with seven power generation entities under its tutelage.

The mere fact that it is a public utility in a country where high-level corruption is concomitant with public expenditure, explains why a $52bn company becomes a harbinger of corporate misdemeanours and failure.

According to Global Energy Monitor, Eskom has 13 coal-fired power stations with an installed capacity of 37,698MW. Such installed capacity would be a bonus had the tariffs been market-rated, backed with functional privatisation and exquisite revenue accountability systems.

However, like in every other African country, electricity tariffs gravitate towards the lower end to allow clean energy access for the greater part of poorer citizens. Despite spirited attempts at upward tariff adjustments, recapitalisation and profitability remain elusive at Eskom.

The colossal utility is under numerous investigations for incidences of coal tender corruption and unsanctioned consultancy fees that have haemorrhaged the entity upward to R20bn ($1bn). Most scandals focus mainly on the now-exiled Gupta brothers, whose shenanigans led to Justice Raymond Zondo’s State Capture Report that found former president Jacob Zuma complicit.

Political meddling by the governing African National Congress (ANC) is equally blamed for gross inefficiency at Eskom. The appointment of  André de Ruyter as the new CEO in December 2019 did little to resolve power generation issues, only serving to expose more of what he termed “criminal syndicates” before resigning in protest in December 2022.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s knee-jerk reaction in appointing Kgosientsho Ramokgopa as electricity minister how many months ago has not saved South Africa from “stage six load-shedding” – up to 12 hours of rolling blackouts daily.

Ironically, Eskom’s woes have a negative ripple effect on its northern neighbours who used to benefit from South Africa’s excess power generation during the bygone times of plenty.

ZESA failures

Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) is afflicted with similar power generation woes. Despite a near-stagnant economy, the country’s electricity supplier is bereft of ideas on how to generate electricity beyond 1,000MW – 50% below its full potential.

According to energy online media NS Energy, Kariba power station was constructed by four Italian companies – Impresit, Girola, Lodigiani and Torno – and commissioned by the Federal Government of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in the early 1960s with a rated capacity of 400MW. Over the decades, more coal-powered and thermal generation units have been added at Hwange and Munyati power stations.

Despite much publicised financial agreements with China Eximbank and Development Finance Institutions, ZESA has failed dismally to satisfy Zimbabwe’s 2,000MW aggregate demand for power. Efforts to cover the deficit with imports from South Africa  are thwarted not only by poor liquidity, but Eskom’s export incapacity.

There is more than one reason why ZESA is considered a failure.

Most analysts blame its top-heavy management structure that rewards political compliance rather than engineering merit. The ruling Zanu-PF party has been accused of abusing ZESA to energise non-productive farms and rural areas at uneconomic tariffs.

Just like Eskom, cases of tender awards driven by shameless avarice have been bandied about with corruption being an insidious irritant.

Feeble attempts by the government at explaining the dynamics of low water supplies from the Zambezi River have received little sympathy from electricity-starved citizens. Water led into the turbines is monitored and controlled by the Zambezi River Authority, which is at liberty to limit its flow at will.

Kariba North power station supplies Zambia with electricity, yet Zimbabwe’s northern neighbours do not seem to be in a similar predicament, at least according to energy expert Johnstone Chikwanda.

He paints a rosy picture of Zambia attracting $1.7bn of projected investment in the energy sector as the 750MW Kafue Gorge Lower (KGL) plant gears up to transform power supplies in that copper-rich country.

Solutions to Southern Africa’s energy poverty

I have deliberately avoided putting Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho and eSwatini to the proverbial sword for two reasons. First, Mozambique is generally energy sufficient with enough excess for export to its neighbours.

This means Southern Africa can easily resolve its energy crises by investing with a country like Mozambique that already has a comparative advantage.

According to the World Economic Forum, Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries are low performers on the energy access and supply rating. Thus, it would be rational for the Southern Africa Power Pool to redirect its resources to Mozambique.

Second, these countries are endowed with consistent sunlight and other organic materials thus can easily diversify their energy mix to shift from over-reliance on hydroelectric power. With Zimbabwe’s rated 500m tonnes of coal reserves, coal-powered thermal power stations could easily quench voracious regional energy appetite.

Moreover, governments are not doing enough to promote solar power adaptation, biogas and demand-side management. Eliminating illegal connections and instituting strict revenue collection systems are other ignored panaceas.

Without sounding like an extreme liberal, keeping utilities like Eskom, ZESA and ZESCOM (Zambia) in state hands impedes efficiency. Private public partnerships or outright privatisation are a medium-to-long-term option.

It is unlikely that state-owned enterprises can attract enough finance to recapitalise generation equipment and transmission infrastructure considering the woeful record of corporate governance.

African countries struggle to eliminate corruption, even for functional democracies like South Africa where there is the best of constitutional intentions.

As the world stampedes towards the SDG targets of 2030, without a radical shift – mostly a corporate governance paradigm adjustment – it is hard to see how Southern Africa can achieve SDG7 of “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

As long as Southern Africa languishes at the bottom of energy poverty, it will take time to make a strong push towards industrialisation. In this respect, poverty and darkness beckons.

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