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A general view of Sasol Synfuels Operations, a commercial coal-based synthetic fuels manufacturing facility.MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

The South African government, facing the prospect of power blackouts for years to come, says it is moving closer to declaring a national state of disaster to help it tackle the energy crisis that has devastated its economy.

The International Monetary Fund and other analysts are downgrading their forecasts for South Africa this year as the electricity shortages worsen. On Tuesday the IMF projected that the country’s economy will grow 1.2 per cent this year, less than half its growth last year, largely because of the rolling blackouts.

South Africa’s central bank has an even lower forecast for the year: just 0.3 per cent, sharply down from earlier projections, with the blackouts again cited as a key factor. Without the power outages, the economy would have grown by at least 7 per cent last year, almost five percentage points higher than the actual rate, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers this week.

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Mohammad Ameen Sha and Ismail Sha study with rechargeable lanterns for their final examination during one of the frequent power outages, called load-shedding, from South Africa's struggling power utility Eskom, because of ageing coal-fired power stations, in Cape Town, South Africa.ESA ALEXANDER/Reuters

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced Monday night that there is “broad agreement” in his ruling party, the African National Congress, to move toward a declaration of a state of disaster to deal with the energy crisis. It would be similar to the national disaster that South Africa proclaimed at the beginning of the pandemic, in 2020, he said.

The government is already studying the emergency powers it would be legally allowed to mobilize, Mr. Ramaphosa told a high-level ANC meeting.

His government is under tremendous pressure to resolve the rotating blackouts, which are cutting the power supply for as long as 10 hours a day and have been imposed every day this year, after 205 days of blackouts last year. They are expected to continue for at least two more years.

Opposition parties and civil-society groups have been organizing street protests and court challenges to fight the power cuts. One opposition party is planning a national shutdown day next month that would include factories, businesses, highways and railways.

Some commentators have voiced concerns that a national state of disaster would allow Mr. Ramaphosa’s government to take steps that threaten basic rights and freedoms. Advocates of the plan, however, argue that it would permit the fast-tracking of energy reforms that have been blocked by political and bureaucratic gridlock.

Environmental groups and Western governments, meanwhile, are pressing South Africa to capitalize on the crisis by moving away from coal, which has dominated its economy for decades. They have offered billions of dollars to support a transition away from fossil fuels.

Key leaders in the government have stalled the move to renewable energy for years, even as the failure of the country’s coal-based power system becomes increasingly obvious.

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Students from the Soshanguve Automotive School of Specialization pose for a photograph behind solar panels on a train roof, north of Pretoria, South Africa.Denis Farrell/The Associated Press

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Wind turbines seen at the Gouda Wind Farm located 115 km north east of Cape Town, South Africa.Nardus Engelbrecht/The Associated Press

South Africa is considered to have some of the world’s greatest potential solar and wind resources, and the government has been promising to switch to renewables since 2011. But the transition has been repeatedly delayed, largely because of resistance from government figures such as Gwede Mantashe, a senior ANC leader who has been the Minister of Energy and Mining for the past four years.

Mr. Mantashe put off the procurement of renewable energy for years. When emergency procurement plans were finally launched, it was discovered that South Africa’s transmission grid lacked the capacity to carry electricity from the main sources of solar and wind power generation in the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces.

As a result of the delays, South Africa still has the most carbon-intensive economy in the Group of 20 nations and is ranked as one of the world’s 15 biggest carbon emitters.

Mr. Mantashe, a former coal miner and mine worker union leader, has argued that coal should remain a major component of South Africa’s energy system for many years to come. Environmentalists have called him a “coal fundamentalist” – a title he has said he accepts – and he has retorted by speaking of them contemptuously as “greenies” and “colonialists.”

He is also pushing to buy 2,000 megawatts of emergency power from Turkish company Karpowership, which produces electricity from gas-fired plants on giant ships. Environmental groups have launched legal challenges of the plan, but the government could grant environmental approval as early as next month.

Despite the years of delays, there are signs that the long-overdue shift to renewables is finally gaining speed in South Africa. Private companies are now permitted to produce up to 100 megawatts of power without a special licence. Many mining companies and other industries have begun to build their own solar energy plants, and some are planning to sell their surplus energy to Eskom, the national electricity utility.

Municipalities, too, are switching to renewables. The city of Cape Town is planning to buy 300 megawatts of renewable energy in the coming months, and has also announced a plan to pay residents and businesses to sell their surplus energy to the city.

In total, South Africa imported more than $380-million in solar panels last year, compared with about $300-million in the previous year, according to the PwC report.

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