South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday declared a state of national disaster in an attempt to stem the deep electricity crisis that is undermining the daily life and economy of the continent’s leading industrial power.
For months, 60 million South Africans have been forced to cook, wash their clothes and charge their phones at certain times of the day only. The country is running out of electricity and rationing it by imposing scheduled blackouts. These power cuts have lasted up to nearly 12 hours on some days, with the shortage worsening since last year.
“We are declaring a state of national disaster in response to the electricity crisis and its impact,” said Ramaphosa, 70, from Cape Town City Hall in the south, where he held his annual state of the nation address in the evening, broadcast live on television.
He went on to say that “extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures”, recognizing that “the crisis has gradually evolved to affect all levels of society”.
The state of disaster mainly allows the release of exceptional funds. The ANC said last week that it had given “clear instructions” and urged the government to adopt this provision.
Cyril Ramaphosa had already triggered this procedure last year during the unprecedented floods that killed more than 400 people in the southeast of the country and caused destruction estimated at several hundred million euros.
The state of disaster could also appease a growing anger that has taken to the streets in recent weeks with demonstrations against power cuts in several cities, called by the opposition and trade unions.
Again on Thursday, several hundred people gathered in Cape Town, in a gloomy economic and social context. Unemployment has reached 32.9%, growth forecasts for this year are almost zero (0.3%) and the increase in the cost of living seems to be driven by persistent inflation.
Tensions at the ceremony
This electricity crisis is largely in addition to the stigma of the corruption era under President Jacob Zuma (2009-2018). The coffers of state-owned Eskom were a major target of organized looting of state resources.
Today, the company, which produces 90% of the country’s electricity, is burdened with debts, while struggling with ageing and poorly maintained coal-fired power plants that are regularly plagued by breakdowns.
“It’s a whole energy system that is collapsing and a situation that is probably impossible to resolve in the short term,” said Erwin Schwella, a public affairs expert.
South Africa, still largely dependent on fossil fuels, is struggling to make the transition to clean energy. A $98 billion investment plan was approved by rich countries last year at COP27 as part of an agreement for a “just transition.
On Thursday evening in Cape Town, President Ramaphosa began speaking in front of several hundred MPs, judges, former presidents and guests in a tense atmosphere.
The ceremony was interrupted as soon as it began by members of the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, who rushed to the podium where Mr. Ramaphosa was standing. They were excluded from the hall. The movement’s leaders had vowed not to let the “delinquent” president speak.
Embroiled in a scandal with a tainted money trail, Ramaphosa escaped impeachment proceedings in December, backed by the ANC. A police investigation is still underway. The historic party subsequently re-elected him as its leader, assuring him of a second term as head of state if the ANC wins the 2024 general election.