The announcement by the new South African government to decouple the Ministries of Minerals and Energy represents a symbolic shift away from a troubled legacy. Civil society has long called for splitting the incongruous pair into departments with their own clear and distinct mandates. However, jubilation must be tempered as we consider the ideological and practical implications of the decision for the Zuma-led government, which is emphasising the strengthening of institutions and has, through the ANC's Polokwane declaration, put climate change as a key item in its agenda.
At the outset, it is important to recognise the extent to which the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) has been central to encapsulating the nature of power relations in our deeply divisive and unequal society. The centrality of cheap, dirty energy from large stocks of coal stem from power needs of mines and heavy industry was responsible for rapid wealth accumulation in the 1980's. Post-Apartheid, the DME was still ‘locked into' such thinking and was especially fraught with inconsistencies in its approach to universal provision of electricity and its servicing the needs of industry, particularly in the mining sector. The largely anti-social and anti-ecological practices that governed electricity provision also had repercussions for the country's devastating climate record, with the country ranked as one of the world's 20 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Cheap electricity also places great stress on the environment because it requires large amounts of coolant water. These factors as well as the DME's relationship with the electricity provider, Eskom, which became the implementing agent of these bad policies, also meant that climate change responsibilities were ‘relegated' to the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (another department with an odd coupling of mandates). Moreover, this inappropriate decision allowed the DME to abdicate responsibility for its role in causing and exacerbating climate change.
The new stand-alone Department of Energy now has the potential to break some of these inherent tensions. But a cursory analysis reveals that there are major areas of concern and systematic redress that will need to happen in order for this to be realised. Firstly, a priority for the department is defining its role and mapping out its strategy on universal access to clean, affordable energy. This will entail a more rights-based approach, which is eschewed in place of commodification, growth and heavy industry bias currently. The Department will also need to concurrently outline its strategy on transforming energy supply away from oil, coal and nuclear to a no-carbon future. This must work in tandem with, and be directly linked to, the strategy of the lead department on climate change, the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs whereas the disconnection thus far between the two has manifested on many occasions. Most transparently the Long Term Mitigation Scenarios devised by DEAT which was almost completely devoid of the DME and Eskom's reality of building new coal-fired power stations, a decision taken to address severe power shortages early last year.
Secondly and following on from this, the Department of Energy needs to resolve its ambiguous relationship with Eskom. With the advent of a new dispensation in 1994 came enforced changes in the form of the 1998 Eskom Amendment Act. Essentially, this turned the utility into a company with one shareholder, the state to which it pays both dividends and taxes. This relationship has inspired a difficulty in distinguishing government from Eskom, in particular because there is no real clarity in the public's eye on how decisions are made, who makes them, and ultimately who to hold to account. The latest DME regulations in March this year named Eskom as the National Energy Planner has made this even fuzzier. Moreover, it is inconceivable why a utility should be entrusted with the responsibility of planning, effectively a ministry's core responsibility.
Another important aspect that follows from this, is that the Department must explain how it will adopt an approach to address energy concerns in the country in a progressive, holistic, developmental sense. For more obvious reasons, this will assist in putting an end to the intransigent conflation between electricity and energy. At the most basic level we need energy to produce and support life. In a more technical, modern sense we need it for our convenience: for transport, to cook food, to heat and cool buildings, power electronics, and to mould matter into all sorts of modern materials and items. To address all of these requirements will mean a deeper engagement with citizens, listening to their needs, including them on all manners of decision-making processes and fostering accountability. It may also mean inspiring a more serious conversation with departments of transport, agriculture, land, trade and industry and others.
Finally, the Department will need to resolve issues in the two most closely aligned departments, Public Enterprises and Water and Environmental Affairs. The Department of Energy will need to push and monitor reforms in the Department of Public Enterprises around the better behaviour and governance of Eskom. It will also need to demand accountability from Eskom through Public Enterprises in terms of addressing issues of universal access. Related to this is to manage tensions between the Department of Energy, Eskom and the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) which have led to conflicts of interest that prevent the national regulator for carrying out its key tasks. As alluded to above, the Department will also need to seek greater harmony between itself and the strategy and operations of Department of Water and Environmental Affairs as the lead in climate change efforts.
A challenging time lies ahead for the Ministry of Energy in creating a new department in a rapidly deteriorating physical environment. Tough choices must be made as the ramifications also go well beyond the Department to fundamentally reorganising power relations in our country as well as confronting the premise and trajectory of our current development model. But the rewards for creating benchmarks for sustainable, socially just future would be well worth the struggle.
By: Trusha Reddy, Senior Researcher, Corruption and Governance Programme, ISS Cape Town