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South Africa’s Post-Apartheid Energy Crisis and the Solar Power Boom

A Brief History of the South African Energy Crisis and how it is rooted  in Social Injustice

By Kitt Thompson

Pylon owned by Eskom by Axel Bührmann via Flickr

In 1994’s South Africa, few would have predicted that little more than a decade after the end of apartheid (racial segregation), the nation's optimism would have been undermined by an energy crisis set to bring its progress down. 

With the election of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) that year, the government set about breaking down racial segregation through rapid legislative changes and urban development. The 1998 Employment Equity Act enabled the emergence of a black middle-class population of 4.2 million by 2012. This, along with regeneration projects, improved the quality of living in many impoverished areas, such as the infamous township of Soweto. 

However, throughout this period, South Africa was sliding towards the energy crisis it now finds itself embroiled in. A government white paper in 1998 predicted that without action to increase the energy output, growing demand would exceed the 10,670-megawatt surplus of 1997 by 2007. 

However, under Mandela, energy policy was directed towards the short-term goals outlined in the document: bringing equality to the power grid through electrifying previously neglected areas. Later, attempts to privatise Eskom, the state power monopoly, and increased competition in the industry meant the building of new power plants to address the declining energy surplus was blocked. As a result, only two significant plants came online between 1990 and 2008, with another two decommissioned coal plants brought back into production as the crisis loomed. 

As predicted, power cuts began in 2007, and by January 2008, this had led to a national energy emergency. The closing of mines caused the price of gold to skyrocket and damage the economy. 

Attempts to address the crisis since then have failed. Despite South Africa’s energy capacity rising between 2011 and 2020, the amount of power generated has fallen due to persistent maintenance issues, looting of coal and strikes leading to continued blackouts. These are worsening with periods of load-shedding, where energy is cut off in a region to reduce demand, which is expected to be 2.5 times higher this year than in 2022. 

Eskom’s attempts to resolve these issues have been hamstrung by ANC corruption. The company’s former president, Andre De Ruyter, described the utility as a feeding trough for this, with R$1bn (£43m) stolen from the company every month. While this figure is unverified, what is known is the damage of the power cuts to the economy and society itself. The South African Central Bank estimated that these severe power cuts could be costing the economy up to R$899m a day. 

Those who can afford to isolate themselves from the national grid. This has resulted in soaring imports of solar panels, up £245m from 2021 to 2022, according to data from TradeMap and Quantec. The first quarter of 2023 saw 2,400MW of private solar projects registered, leaving some privileged areas seemingly untouched by the blackouts. 

While great legislature changes were achieved with the end of apartheid, the growing energy divide highlights how the government has failed to achieve the economic equality needed to break down class divides.


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