South Africa’s Green Bishop Appeals to Ramaphosa – Let There be Light!

Open-Ed

Let there be light! Come on President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC. There is a way out of darkness. There is a way to light. You just have to open a door to free enterprise and individual initiative and leave the dark coal age behind. With renewable energy technology, we have entered a new century of abundant and sustainable energy.

In 2008 SAFCEI (the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute) met top Eskom officials and Government ministers. We encouraged them then to build their renewable energy capacity. We can get all the energy we need through sustainable ways — it is blowing in the wind and shining on us daily.

But we were told by many top-ranking people, who had far more clout and rank, that there is lots of money in coal, and South Africa has lots of coal so we have to burn it. If — and we can’t cry over spilt milk — if we had spent the money we have on Medupi and Kusile from 2008 on renewable energy, we would not be suffering from rolling blackouts now.

How many billions of rands has that cost us and how much are we spending now on diesel because of their failure? As we go into stage five, or beyond, we know what a disaster those new coal-fired power stations are.

Move on to 2015. A Business Day supplement and glossy magazines came out extolling the massive opportunities of renewable energy. Investors were queuing up. What happened? Nothing. Obstacle after bureaucratic obstacle. Investors threw their hands up in despair and went elsewhere.

Now Daily Mavericks’s Our Burning Planet, and amaBhungane, have explained why. Corruption — all renewable energy proposals and bids were blocked because of the Zuma and Gupta interests in coal and uranium, hence President Zuma’s Rosatom nuclear deal with the Gupta and Zuma uranium mine.

President Ramaphosa, please put somebody in charge of DMRE who understands reality and let us light up our country with renewable energy. It can be done. Just let all of us — all who financially can — invest in renewable energy and save our beloved country from this unmitigated darkness. And let us do it now, not next year.

Is it not common sense? The energy we need and want, for cars as well as houses and businesses, is electricity. We can now generate electricity directly. The fuel is wind and sun, free for the harnessing. Why use and pay for oil, coal, gas, uranium to generate electricity? The only reason is the vast amount of money tied up in fossil fuels and the nuclear industry.

Apart from the corruption, why have we got into this abominable position? I take the liberty of liberally quoting two passages, first from that important and excellently referenced book by Malcolm Ray in his The Tyranny of Growth.

“On a snowy January morning in 1992, an audience of the world’s business and political elite gathered at the annual summit of the World Economic Forum in Davos to hear a speech on the ANC’s economic policy for South Africa after Apartheid. The cause celebre Nelson Mandela had achieved something near sainthood internationally but his audience was in a dour mood. They had been expecting a left wing diatribe from the elder statesman who, moments after his release from prison in 1990, told his supporters that he believed in state ownership and control of South Africa’s major businesses. The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries, he said, “Is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.”

Now, however, standing before an A-list of CEOs, billionaires and heads of state with a hand on the major switch points of global finance and investment, Mandela changed tack. Plagued by self-doubt about his parties’ economic policy stance on nationalisation, he stunned his listeners by reassuring his audience that, upon the assumption of power, the ANC would commit to a programme of investor friendly economic policies. He went on to tell his audience that the ANC would commit itself as the future government to the principle of “social justice” — a term that chimed with the WEF — for the black majority: “decent housing, healthcare, decent education, public transport, access to clean water, sanitation, and access to economic opportunities” — that is, the creation of a black business class. The message was greeted with loud applause.

One evening during the five-day Davos gathering, Mandela dined with delegations from China and Vietnam who had come to the summit to discuss China’s rise and the emerging “Asian miracle”. There China’s Premier, Li Peng, listened politely to Mandela’s attempt at rationalising nationalisation as the ANC policy for South Africa.

When Mandela was finished, Peng turned to him and, at the risk of snubbing his elder comrade, responded to his translator, “I have to tell you that we tried that, and it doesn’t work.”

The Vietnamese Premier backed up Peng: “We are currently striving to privatise state enterprises and invite private enterprise into economies,” he said to Mandela. We are communist party governments, and you are a leader of a national liberation movement,” he continued, “so why are you talking about nationalisation?”

Why have our state-owned enterprises persisted? Allister Sparks in The Sword and the Pen gives an indication of why, and why they have so singularly failed:

One of the major causes of our economic decline is contained in the doctrine of democratic centralism, which holds that the state should be at the controlling centre of all economic activity in the country. It is a concept derived initially from the Soviet model, but modified by the South East Asian “Tigers” — Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan — to involve a high level of state coordination of the private sector as well as state run enterprises.

It is not surprising that the ANC was attracted by this model, for the Asian Tigers achieved exceptionally high growth rates, above 7%, from the 1960s through the 1990s. By the turn of the century they had become advanced, high income economies.

The problem with this concept, so attractive on paper, is that in practice it can succeed only in a situation where the state has access to a very high level of skills, especially technical skills, which the Asian Tigers had, but which South Africa most certainly does not have.

For the government to coordinate the activities of the private sector, it must have civil servants who are as skilled in business management, if not more so, than the CEOs of the country’s most successful big corporations. They must understand each other and be able to coordinate their roles in a creative way.

Without that, the system becomes a disaster. For a government with a poorly skilled civil service to set about trying to lead and coordinate private sector activities can only result in a mismatch that will strangle the country’s economy. This is happening in South Africa. We are a country that has never had an efficient civil service, and now with large-scale affirmative action it has been lowered still further as it passes through a long learning curve.”

What has to happen? First, we must overcome the multitude of bureaucratic obstacles that obstruct the roll-out of renewable energy. Then encourage renewable energy investment from every quarter, for large scale to household.

Implement microgrids. Allow private initiative and free enterprise. Within months — not years — we could be generating electricity. We know the grid needs to be balanced and cannot cope with surges, so those feeding into the grid would need to be registered and some control implemented, but the electricity would be there when needed.

For all this to happen, we need to move from state control and monopoly. But this is a fundamental political policy, Minister Gwede Mantashe stated at the recent signing of three RE projects (out of 25 finalists announced last year). He said that many people had advocated for the government to depend on the private sector for its energy supplies, but he was not one of them.

“I am not yet a convert to that. I want the private sector to grow, but we need a strong state so the private sector can thrive. I believe in the state — a strong state is good for the private sector — it’s not a competitor, it is a facilitator.”

After 25 years we have seen that the state does not have the capacity to run our state-owned enterprises. I don’t need to list them. They must be transferred, if not into private hands, at least devolved to regional bodies. This does not mean there is no state involvement. It means that the state provides the structure in which private initiative can flourish.

Our current decision making is critically important, not just for our energy future, but our planetary future. Minister Mantashe, our wellbeing and the wellbeing and health of your children and grandchildren is totally dependent on the wellbeing of the planet. We can’t survive without a reliable climate, clean water and flourishing planet.

The crisis of climate change calls on us to reduce our greenhouse gases urgently. The world is still not acknowledging the precarious position we are in. Is hurricane Ian finally going to convince Americans, after the weather extremes of droughts, wildfires, floods they have experienced?

It’s not only in America. Temperatures in Africa are predicted to increase twice the global average. Can you imagine average temperatures increasing by three or four degrees, seriously threatening our agriculture and food production?

We have to reduce emissions this decade. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has stated that CO2 emissions must peak by 2025 at the latest. The glaciers and Arctic and Antarctic ice caps are melting. We cannot bring them back. The oceans are rising. Global ocean currents and airstreams are altering, changing world climate patterns and causing weather extremes. The Western Cape will become much drier.

We have seen horrendous floods in KZN and now in Pakistan and Nigeria and a devastating and continuing drought in Somalia with a temperature increase of 1.1°C, and “the World” at the climate talks negotiate increases up to 1.5°C or even 2°C.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has clearly told the world of the crisis position we are already in. The IEA (International Energy Agency) has already stated that we have sufficient known fossil fuel resources, so why, why should South Africa allow the exploration for further fossil fuel? We must end all exploration and drilling, be it seismic testing or drilling in the Okavango, or licensing costly Karpowerships.

End all these fossil fuel endeavours now, and invest all our resources in renewable energy now. We know renewable energy is now cheaper, employs more people and distributes wealth more equitably. Do it now.

What prevents us from doing so? It is largely the power, wealth and vested interests of the hugely wealthy fossil fuel industry. But we must not let the fossil fuel interests destroy our future for their wealth. We can’t live on money. We can only survive on a living planet. Let us bring about an energy revolution that puts energy into the hands of the people and ends this gross inequality around the globe.

Guterres has bluntly stated, “The fossil fuel industry is killing us. It is feasting on subsidies and windfall profits, while household budgets shrink and our planet burns.” Pope Francis has also spoken out against fossil fuels. This helps erode the legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry which has continually worked to block climate action.

There is hope. The Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) recently held a consultation with faith-based community leadership on the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP). There was clearly an awareness of the seriousness of climate change and the need to turn to renewable energy.

The introduction to the JETP states:

South Africa is in a part of the world that is severely impacted by climate variability. The country frequently experiences droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events, with evidence that the frequency and intensity of such events are increasing because of climate change (IPCC 2022). These events have already caused enormous damage to infrastructure, ecosystems, lives, and livelihoods, and displaced thousands of people, and continue to be a stark reminder that it is poorer communities — women and young people, the unemployed, those living in informal settlements — that are most vulnerable to climate change. Climate change also places significant stress on food security and South Africa’s already-constrained water resources, creating knock-on impacts in other sectors.

Climate change exacerbates South Africa’s triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world; the divide between the rich and the poor is larger than ever; currently, the unemployment rate, at over 35 percent, is at record levels. The health impacts from the burning of fossil fuels (a major driver of climate change) also impacts poorer communities, further highlighting these inequities.

Can we as a nation now act with the urgency required?

Author: Bishop Geoff Davies

 ‘The Green Bishop’ as Bishop Geoff Davies is known, is the founder and honorary patron of the Southern African Faith Communities Environmental Institute, and retired Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Umzumvubu.

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