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BRIDGETT MAJOLA AND GAVIN NOETH | Let's sort energy crisis and inspire the world again

Load-shedding has been reduced to stage 2 from midday on Friday until further notice.
Load-shedding has been reduced to stage 2 from midday on Friday until further notice.

On December 4,1996, the Constitution of the Republic of SA was approved by the Constitutional Court before coming into effect in February 1997. Widely considered one of the most progressve in the world, it has influenced the constitutional development of several countries, particularly in Africa.

Given the high regard in which the Constitution is held, it’s easy to forget how much violence and upheaval preceded its adoption. All the while, people who believed that there was a better way to collaborate debated and hammered away at a document that would come to be the cornerstone of the country’s democracy.

Today, the country finds itself at a similar inflexion point. This time, however, the battle isn’t how to enshrine citizens’ rights but ensuring that they have constant, affordable access to electricity. While it’s easy to be depressed by SA’s power woes (especially with loadshedding already having hit record levels in 2023), there are many people working on solving the problem.

From the people helping South Africans with rooftop solar panels to the companies building major renewable energy projects, all are contributing to a greener, more power-secure SA. Implemented correctly, all of these initiatives could see SA once again become a model for the world to follow.

To start with, it’s clear that loadshedding has had a devastating effect on the economy. With the higher stages of scheduled blackouts costing the economy upwards of R1bn a day and hundreds of businesses shutting down, it should hardly be surprising that the economy grew by a modest 0.4% in the first three months of 2023.

But even if Eskom had consistently managed to keep the lights on over the past 15 years, there would still be a strong case for moving to new forms of energy. The utility is, after all, the world’s most polluting power company. In time, that could make it difficult for SA to receive investment, particularly from countries and investment funds with strict environmental criteria. That’s to say nothing of the almost 80,000 people some researchers estimate could die by 2025 as a result of breathing in emissions from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations.

But, in order for it to make a positive impact on the lives of most ordinary South Africans, a comprehensive legal framework is critical. Without it, there’s a risk of energy prices spiralling out of control (as has been the case in the UK and Europe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) and of skilled workers being added to the country’s already dire unemployment statistics.

Such a framework should, therefore, work to ensure that electricity is affordable to all South Africans by ensuring that the electricity energy market remains competitive both for Eskom and private producers. Additionally, it should provide legal clarity on how to achieve a just transition, particularly when it comes to ensuring that workers in the traditional space aren’t left high and dry.

Fortunately, SA has a good base to start from. From a policy and regulatory perspective at least, the country’s independent power producers programme is widely recognised as being among the best in the world. If the same thought and application is given to a legal framework for the country’s energy transition, then the world could once again look to SA for models to be followed just as it did with our Constitution.

If, on the other hand, businesses, organisations, state departments and government officials only work towards their own ends, then the country will miss a golden opportunity. It’s critical, therefore, that they realise how significant this moment in time is and the continuing collaboration through the National Energy Crisis Committee, which was set up last year to tackle loadshedding is given the highest priority. We are at a point that could be just as significant as the signing of the Constitution. But if that’s to be the case, all role players need to play active roles in building a framework that could prove an inspirational model for the rest of the world.

Majola is director for banking and finance at law firm CMS SA; Noeth is senior consultant at CMS SA

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