I was listening to the radio sometime last month when I heard the brilliant Ms Lerato Mbele put all things aside and merely plead with the Governor of the South African Reserve Bank, Mr Lesetja Kganyago, to not increase interest rates any more than what was absolutely necessary.
Lerato pleaded with the Governor in the context of the conversation of Eskom raising tariffs by almost 20%, rising inflation, and talk of recessions in different parts of the world. Inasmuch as Lerato had just unpacked what the raising of interest rates was trying to achieve, and how even the United States is seeing record-high interest rates, still, it's true that many people in this country were simply not going to survive a significant rise to the tune of 50 basis points. Luckily, and perhaps because of hearing Lerato’s plea, interest rates “only” went up by 25 basis points. I say “only” because it could have been worse!
What is to be done when it is the medicine itself that threatens the patient’s life? Well, of course, the patient must live and take the medicine. There are so many threatening circumstances that seem to be threatening our lives at this moment - unavoidably top of mind, however, has been the energy crisis at Eskom, and linked to that is the climate crisis. We cannot afford to do either/or. We must do “both and” if we want to save this patient.
South Africa has been facing electricity shortages for a few years and its greatest impact has been felt in January 2023 alone in terms of hours without electricity. While electricity is not a right listed in the Bill of Rights, it feels so vital that many of us might feel that it should be constitutionally protected. Access to electricity impacts your constitutional right to access water when the pumps are without power. It impacts your constitutional right to safety when the lights go out and the technological tools we use to keep ourselves safe go offline. The energy crisis impacts your right to practice a trade, earn a living and support a family and many other so-called second-generation rights.
The energy crisis is not a crisis in isolation, it has the ability to intensify pre-existing injustices and crises. There were reports that the government fears that the energy crisis will spark another unrest like the one we saw in July of 2021. Things feel so incredibly vulnerable.
In our work at the grassroots in meeting the immediate needs of people facing crisis, we have seen some of the extent to which people have been pushed in order to survive. Things are truly bad out there. In one instance, we were told of a shack in an informal settlement that was so cold all the time, being exposed to harsh winds and icy temperatures, that the family had one of those metal children’s trolleys connected to the grid as a heating element. It lay there, the bars red hot, in the middle of the room making heat during winter months. The levels of social decay we have allowed to take place are shocking. We have turned our citizens into criminals.
But is that enough? Where does accountability from citizens come in? Here was a situation where cables had been clearly connected illegally to the grid and that power was being used to produce heat in a seriously dangerous manner. If someone, a child or anybody really, were to touch that heated trolley element, they would immediately burn. For that matter, if a piece of fluff were to drift onto that heated trolley element, it could start a serious fire.
As much as we hold the government to account for this crisis, and we must hold them to account, we must also hold ourselves accountable too. It’s not right that it is widely known that in some areas, employees in the energy sector are able to disconnect your electricity meter so that it does not read your usage and, therefore, you don’t pay for the electricity you use. All in the name of a side hustle. There must be appropriate accountability both for the state as well as for the citizens. Appropriate accountability, for instance, means that where there are households in a region that are owing on their electricity bill, it cannot be that the entire region is disconnected from the grid. Collection must be targeting non-payers. Similarly, it cannot be right for communities to block Eskom or City Council employees from cutting off the non-payers who can afford to pay.
This is not the only false dichotomy we must dismantle in the energy crisis. The other concerns the need for a so-called ‘just transition’. The reality is, it simply is not reasonable or sustainable for South Africa to transition to clean energy overnight, as much as we would have it be that way. The truth is, to put it bluntly, there are many mining communities in which more than 50% of the community is unemployed and where there are jobs to be found they are in coal. Just recently, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Mr Gwede Mantashe, shared a list of 10 communities that are almost completely dependent on coal. The two sides of the debate argue for an either/or solution instead of running the two solutions in parallel so that coal can gradually be phased out.
This does not mean that the climate crisis will wait for us to be ready. Jobs in the coal industry will not protect communities from climate-related disasters. We must simultaneously act vigorously in every sector and corner of society to combat the effects of the climate crisis and mitigate climate change. The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated.
This year, 2023, will mark 10 years since Nelson Mandela passed away. And at the end of the first decade without Madiba, there continues to be what seems like ever-mounting crises, emergencies, and disasters. We miss Madiba. We miss his astute and decisive leadership, his outstanding values and his overwhelming care and deep love for the people of this country. Shortly, we will be launching the official call to action in honour of his memory and values – we hope you will join us. But moreover, as we begin this year, let us not be persuaded to allow justice to be delayed. We must, now more than ever, be doing all that we can to reclaim the ideals of our democracy. It is in our hands to find lasting solutions to our most intractable problems.