Eskom power stations from 1926 to 2015

The South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) recently released a report which stated that one of the reasons South Africa is facing an electricity crisis is because the government prohibited Eskom from building power stations in 1998.

It goes on to argue that this was an unexpected decision from the ANC government as the ruling party had long been regarded as Marxist in outlook, favouring state-run institutions.

Eskom was told to stop building additional stations soon after there was talk about it being unbundled or privatised, but the new directives from the government were vague and confusing.

“Eskom fell into a void. It no longer knew what it was meant to be doing, or even what its key function was,” the IRR said.

“In addition, no private generators so much as offered to come in because the price of electricity was much too low.”

This was because the government continued to regulate the price at which electricity was sold.

Meanwhile, South Africa was running out of electricity and the government took no action to get Eskom back on track as demand increased.

Due to bureaucratic and execution delays on the part of the government and Eskom, construction on the new power plants South Africa needed only began in 2007.

By 2008, demand was outstripping supply, and Eskom had to implement load shedding to prevent a national blackout.

The government’s rhetoric since then has been that we have become the victims of our own success. Strong economic growth and social inclusion means that Eskom’s resources were stretched beyond what they were designed to supply.

Sadly, this is not the truth and is just another political red herring.

Lies, damned lies, and politics

Firstly, South Africa was able to supply more electricity than it needed, to the point that three large coal power plants (Komati, Camden, Grootvlei) were “mothballed” in 1990.

After the fall of the apartheid regime, projections showed that South Africa’s excess supply would carry it into the 21st century – enough time to plan and build power plants to meet the increased demand social inclusion would bring.

Secondly, the IRR highlighted that in 1994 the ANC promised an annual economic growth rate of 6% per year. Had it delivered on that promise, the IRR projected that South Africa would have strained the existing electricity supply by 2001 already.

Instead, South Africa seldom showed yearly growth higher than 3%, so we “only” started hitting the limits of our capacity in 2007.

Furthermore, there were many corrective steps the government could have taken to prevent load shedding.

Director of EE Publishers and energy expert Chris Yelland explained that the government dragged its feet from 1999 to 2004 while trying to decide whether Eskom should build the high-capacity power plants South Africa needed.

When the government rescinded the moratorium on building new power plants in 2004, there were further execution delays at Eskom. Construction on Medupi and Kusile only began in 2007 and 2008 respectively, when our power system was already under strain.

Various project delays (whether from strikes or other reasons) also pushed the completion of the new Medupi coal power station from 2013 to 2018, and Kusile from 2014 to 2019.

The infographic below illustrates the gap between the last high-capacity power station fully commissioned in South Africa (Majuba – 1996, construction began in the early 1980s), and the new plants which are only set to fully come on stream in the late 2010s.

Eskom power plants from 1923 to 2015
Eskom power plants from 1923 to 2015

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Eskom power stations from 1926 to 2015