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A national state of disaster beyond energy?

Isandla Institute | 2023-02-09 | 1066 views

After a record number of 207 load shedding days in 2022, today’s State of the Nation Address will undoubtedly be dominated by the energy crisis. Our economy is still recovering from the devastating impact of Covid-19 and having a reliable and stable power supply is critical for industry, public services, communities and households. At a household level these are difficult economic times, with high levels of unemployment (33% according to conservative estimates), the South African Reserve Bank’s recent increase of the repo rate to 7.25% and the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) approval of Eskom’s intended electricity tariffs hike by more than 18% and 12% respectively in the next two financial years.

The problems at Eskom highlight a broader systemic crisis that has been ignored for decades - the fact that basic services infrastructure is at a crisis point in this country. This crisis disproportionately affects poor households and marginalised communities, although recent water outages in parts of Johannesburg show that wealthier suburbs are no longer immune. The difference here – other than the fact that middle-class households may (for now) see a temporary interruption of their service supply – is that poor households do not have the means to invest in alternatives or back-up options, such as generators, solar panels, boreholes and the like.

The lack of access to reliable, quality basic services comes with serious risks to the safety, health and well-being of poor households. When there is load shedding and townships and informal settlements are plunged into darkness, crime incidents increase and stealing of transformers and cables are common. In communities that do not have access to services such as toilets, women and children are at risk of becoming victims of sexual violence and crime as they seek to relieve themselves. Other examples are when a 5-year-old girl died after falling into a pit toilet at a primary school in the Eastern Cape or when a man was electrocuted to death by the exposed wiring of an illegal electrical connection. If all people have access to safe and adequate basic services, serious and deadly incidents like these can be avoided.

Yet, in contrast to loadshedding this reality is not treated as a ‘crisis’, which raises questions about whose lived experiences and whose voice matter more to government. While the President & Co are thinking through solutions for the current energy crisis, equal attention needs to be given to the basic services crisis. There are similarities between the two crises and both have become progressively worse over time. There are hard lessons to be learned from these crises; one of them is that the state needs to budget based on need, rather than identify need based on anticipated budget allocation. The City of Cape Town is adopting this approach in planning for infrastructure, as laid out in its annual Infrastructure Report for 2022, where the intention is to plan for required critical infrastructure, regardless of funding certainty

There is an intention to implement a 2022 ANC policy resolution for a state of national disaster to be declared with regard to South Africa’s energy crisis, with the Presidency co-ordinating an emergency programme to ensure that the energy crisis is addressed. Could this extend beyond the energy crisis, to address the systemic failure of basic services infrastructure and service provision? What sort of impact will this have on households and the economy? Given that basic service provision is a municipal function, what shape and form would a coordinated national response take? Certainly, there are risks in declaring a national state of disaster. When South Africa declared a national state of disaster to deal with the impact of Covid-19, state funds were mismanaged and squandered. There are still ongoing investigations into the illegal tender processes that occurred during that period.

There is an opportunity in every crisis to review how things are done, to gain valuable insight about crafting appropriate and sustainable solutions. Some Metros have seized that opportunity by powering traffic lights with solar energy. Similar initiatives can be adopted in informal settlements, where lighting is a matter of safety and security. Using solar energy to power high mast lights could make a huge difference in townships and informal settlements. What is certain is that we face a number of intersecting crises that requires extraordinary effort on the part of government, communities and various stakeholders to resolve. It requires immediate action to deal with the ‘here and now’ and foresight to deal with the consequences still to come. Our concern is that in keeping with the prescripts of the Constitution, the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised are heard and prioritised.

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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