MALAIKA MAHLATSI: 'Minister of Electricity' nothing more than a PR stunt

OPINION

In the State of the Nation Address (Sona) delivered on the evening of 9 February, President Cyril Ramaphosa spent significant time reflecting on the load shedding crisis that has plunged the country into a perennial state of darkness.

Outlining some critical interventions that the government is doing to stabilise South Africa’s energy security, the president announced that a Minister of Electricity would be appointed in the Presidency “to assume full responsibility for overseeing all aspects of the electricity crisis response, including the work of the National Energy Crisis Committee”.

The president stated that the Minister of Electricity will work full-time with the Eskom board and management on ending load shedding and ensuring that the Energy Action Plan is implemented much quicker.

Curiously, the Minister of Public Enterprises will remain the shareholder representative of Eskom and steer the restructuring of the entity. The Public Enterprises minister will also continue to ensure oversee the establishment of the transmission company, the implementation of the just energy transition programme and the establishment of the SOE Holding Company.

Despite attempts at clearing the confusion regarding what the Minister of Electricity will be doing differently to the Minister of Public Enterprises, the president failed to explain the necessity for the duplication of functions, other than being appointed into the Presidency.

Given how load shedding is severely decimating the national economy, the president may be wanting to be seen to be doing something significant.

However, much like his cancellation of international engagements such as the recent World Economic Forum, which is done under the ostensible reason of “attending to the load shedding crisis at home”, the appointment of a Minister of Electricity is nothing more than a PR exercise by the president.

And it is not only an insult to the collective intelligence of South Africans, who understand that the crisis of load shedding is rooted in bad decisions by the government – including the delay in increasing energy capacity in the post-apartheid dispensation.

The implication of this is that existing power stations are largely old, and with poor maintenance over the years, are simply incapable of providing the consistent energy supply that the country needs.

Adding to this crisis is the design faults, corruption, and mismanagement delayed the completion of the construction of Medupi and Kusile. These power stations have a combined installed capacity of 9,564 megawatts – over 3,000 megawatts more than is required to address the electricity shortfall of 6,000 megawatts.
Despite their construction having began in 2007, both power plants are still not fully operational.

Ramaphosa wants to have us believe that the appointment of a Minister of Electricity will help to resolve the electricity crisis. In reality, it is nothing more than performative politics that are grounded in the need to be seen to be doing something.

But more than this, it is an expression of his continued weakening of the capacity of government – something that he has been doing since he ascended to the highest office in the land. South Africans do not seem to realise just how dangerous Ramaphosa’s institutional fundamentalism is.

Institutional fundamentalism refers to the establishment of new institutions as a means of resolving challenges within existing institutions. It employs the logic that if there is a governance problem in an institution, the solution is to create another institution, with better governance, that will do the work of the problematic institution.

In this process, the problematic institution is not repaired or strengthened, and there is duplication of responsibilities and powers.

Since his election in 2017, Ramaphosa has established more than 15 advisory panels, advisory councils and task teams.

Many of these advisory panels, advisory councils, special envoys, and task teams are comprised of experts in the private sector and academia who are effectively duplicating the work of national departments.

For example, the mandate of the Special Envoy on Tourism is to attract tourism to the country.

Yet, this is the mandate of the Department of Tourism and its entities such as South African Tourism. Another example can be gleaned in the Sona of 2022 where he argued, correctly, that there is a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy impeding on the ease of doing business in the country.

His solution to this problem was to appoint a “Red Tape Team” in the Presidency, chaired by former mining boss and chairperson of the Small Business Institute, Sipho Nkosi. Yet, ensuring ease of doing business in South Africa is the mandate and responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry.

Ramaphosa’s appointment of a Minister of Electricity is a continuation of his weakening of government. If the problem is that there's no capacity in public institutions, then these institutions must be capacitated.

Creating a parallel structure or institution (and locating it within the Presidency) to deal with institutional failure is regressive. For one thing, it emasculates government departments, deepening the incapacity crisis that they evidently face.

Furthermore, it is a costly exercise as these parallel institutions must be provided with their own budgets, which defies the logic of their creation in the first place, as they essentially aim to aid the government in the generation of revenue. Institutional fundamentalism, on the surface, may seem like it is about capacitating the state. In reality, it is strangling it to death.

The government must build the capacity of the public service, not outsource its responsibilities to individuals in the president’s office.

Malaika Mahlatsi is a researcher at the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg.