The Nordic Africa Institute


South Africa’s energy crisis: could it mean lights out for the ANC?


Sign in shop in Johannesburg Photo:Kim Davies

Date • 12 May 2023

As South Africa grapples with persistent power cuts, the scheduled outages loom as a pressing concern that may pull the plug on the ANC's hopes for re-election in 2024.

South Africa has been experiencing worsening electricity cuts over the past 15 years, which have led to frustration among citizens, negative international economic sentiment, and financial hardship for businesses. In 2022, the country experienced the worst power outages in its history.

Eskom, the state-owned power utility responsible for generating and distributing electricity across South Africa, has been at the centre of the crisis. The company has been plagued by financial mismanagement, technical failures, and allegations of corruption and political interference which incumbent president Cyril Ramaphosa has largely blamed on the former administration of Jacob Zuma and his links to the Gupta brothers, a wealthy business family of Indian descent who have been accused of siphoning off state funds and influencing government appointments

But with the situation worsening under his rule South Africans are becoming increasingly frustrated.

NAI associate Henning Melber describes the problem confronting Ramaphosa as being “like tentacles”. “The replacement of Zuma by Ramaphosa is not enough because the problem is in the system. State capture is surviving beyond Zuma and the Gupta brothers. And its faction in the ANC is so strong that even if Ramaphosa wants to change, he has to tread lightly”.


Henning Melber Photo:Mattias Sköld

Many South Africans have called for greater accountability and transparency from the government.

The energy crisis has significantly impacted South Africa's economy. The central bank has been on record predicting that there will be 250 days of power blackout in 2023, which translates to a historic projected economic loss of $12.7 billion.

Eskom generates almost all its electricity from coal, an abundant resource in South Africa. The government's refusal to allow Eskom to build new power stations as the country tries to shift towards renewable energy wore out existing plants that were forced to cope with the rising demand.

Thus, load shedding is implemented as deliberate and temporary power outages to manage electricity demand and prevent a total power grid collapse.

“Retailers and bigger businesses have had to invest in their own energy solutions, like generators. These costs increase consumer prices and add to the cost of living” explains Melber. He adds “Despite everything people have been remarkably patient. But the energy crisis is the number one issue determining the course of the upcoming elections”.

South Africa will be holding general elections in August 2024 and for the first time since assuming power in 1994, the ANC may lose an absolute majority. Current polls show the ANC winning 45 per cent of the vote next year and other surveys show that six in ten people will not be voting for the ANC. Fifty per cent is required to form a government.

The ANC has a number of choices, either an alliance with the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, or the Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical Populist Africanist party headed by the controversial Julius Malema.

NAI Senior researcher Patience Mususa thinks it will be hard to predict the outcome “There are different factions within the ANC and major ideological differences with the two opposition parties. so it’s unclear who they would ally themselves with."

Patience Mususa

Patience Mususa Photo: Mattias Sköld

Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos that the government will attempt to resolve the worst of the load shedding in 12-18 months. Though other government officials have not set a deadline, others within the party have warned that if not resolved, the power cuts may not only affect the ANC’s future but cause massive social unrest in the country.

Despite these challenges, there have been concerted efforts to address the crisis and improve the performance of Eskom. The South African government has committed to investing billions of dollars in Eskom to improve its infrastructure and operations, while also pursuing a range of policy reforms aimed at promoting greater competition and private sector participation in the energy sector.

Mususa explains that while governance is a major issue, the structural issues are more critical and have a regional impact in the whole Southern African region and even further abroad in Europe.

"The crisis has been seen as an issue of political leadership but it actually speaks to a need for broader regional investment in these national grids."

According to Mususa, South Africa does not even have the biggest power disruption problem in the Southern Africa region but rather Zimbabwe and till early this year Zambia which also suffers from ageing grid issues.

The Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) has played a limited role in addressing the Eskom crisis, by providing a platform for regional cooperation and coordination in the electricity sector with different countries, pooling resources to counter these issues and selling electricity to one another.

But the whole Southern Africa region and South Africa in particular, is impeded by an inability to mobilize enough financing. "It’s a catch-22- South Africa had been downgraded by international credit rating institutions as too risky but this risk is mostly perception. But this perception does result in actually making the country seem riskier," explains Mususa.

Mususa believes that depriving South Africa of this critical financing and aggravating the possibility of unrest is a grave mistake. "The world needs to pay attention to this region and to South Africa which is also an industrial powerhouse to avoid a situation like that of the DRC”. DR Congo, a global and regional major copper-cobalt producer, has struggled with governance and societal stability. South Africa has the world’s largest reserves of platinum and manganese, all minerals critical to the global green transition.

"So even if there was a change in government, these structural issues would remain."