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What Will It Take to Lift South Africa out of Darkness?


FILE - Locals walk past electricity pylons during frequent power outages from South African utility Eskom, caused by its aging coal-fired plants, in Soweto, South Africa, July 3, 2022.

Analysts say poor investment in energy infrastructure and age-old corruption at South Africa's troubled state-owned power utility provider Eskom continue to hamper efforts at lifting Africa's most industrialized economy out of its perennial blackouts.

The southern African nation has been experiencing an ongoing energy crisis with consumers enduring one of the worst power cuts since 2008. It's been a record of at least 120 days of power outages so far this year after the company resorted to a power rationing program in a bid to save electricity.

Eskom provides more than 90% of the country's electricity. The country is heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants, which face potential breakdowns. In June, Eskom began to shelve some 6,000 megawatts of power to forestall the collapse of the national grid.

Verner Ayukegba, vice president at the Africa Energy Chamber, told VOA that the current energy crisis is ''extremely difficult'' and has done ''significant damage'' to local and regional economies.

''It's an extremely difficult situation because we've reached a stage where even hospitals in South Africa are grappling with not having enough power. You can imagine maternities and babies not having all that they need to get the right kind of treatment. We've not even mentioned students and universities who have to study, then jobs and people who have businesses that are directly related to energy needs. And so, the damage to the economy is significantly huge,'' he said.

''There's huge need for investments in energy infrastructure in South Africa, we need more power stations and upgrades to existing coal-powered stations across the entire power value chain,'' he said noting that ''there's a lot of gas in neighboring Namibia, Mozambique, and so we need pipelines to be able to get some of that gas into South Africa to help us deal with some of the issues we're experiencing.''

On Tuesday, Eskom CEO André de Ruyter told local media that it has ''started buying power from Zambia'' and ''looking at Mozambique and the private sector to add megawatts."

Marisa Lourenço, a Johannesburg-based energy analyst, told VOA the move to buy power from other nations is “not necessarily a bad thing because it forms part of the southern Africa power sharing agreement.''

''It is a good thing that other countries in the region have additional capacity, that at least if they can't use it because their grid is not developed enough to absorb all the energy produced, they’re able to sell it, and that improves their economies,'' she said adding that what's concerning is that ''Eskom is looking for a short-term solution, and this means that whatever is going on at Eskom needs a long term solution, but will not be addressed in the short term, and this doesn't inspire much confidence.''

Recently, former South African President Thabo Mbeki took a swipe at Eskom's management urging ''re-evaluation'' of the leadership which he claimed are made up of ''politicians and accountants.''

Analyst Lourenço thinks Mbeki should not be in the position to criticize Eskom for the current crisis because ''load shedding began under his regime in 1999.''

''A lot of problems came up during Mbeki's administration, and I think they were overlooked by the business community, because at that time, South Africa was going through a period of high economic growth. Mbeki ruled for two terms, and so what was he doing when he was supposed to be maintaining these power plants?'' she asked.

Last week, South Africa’s cabinet appointed a new board of directors at Eskom.

Ayukegba said qualified personnel are critical for development and reform, saying that in this case ''there's no doubt that Eskom will be a challenge for anybody.''

''Eskom needs somebody who's a turnaround expert, understands power, the South African market and also understands energy transition. South Africa and Africa as a whole have talents, but you need to go global if necessary to get the right kind of talent to tackle (the energy crisis).’'

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