South Africa's offshore push

EMBARRASSING brawls weren’t the only extraordinary thing about South Africa President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address last week, as he departed from his usual self-congratulatory posture to urge development of the country’s offshore coal and gas resources to help tackle its crippling energy crisis.

Anthony Barich

Included in his nine-point plan laid out last Thursday was Operation Phakisa to develop South Africa’s “blue economy”, including offshore oil and gas resources, which are estimated to have the potential to contribute up to R170 billion ($A17.71 billion) to the country’s GDP by 2033.

“With regards to the long term energy master plan, we will pursue gas, petroleum, nuclear, hydropower and other sources as part of the energy mix,” Zuma said in his address in which solving South Africa’s energy crisis was listed as his top priority.

“South Africa is surrounded by gas rich countries, while we have discovered shale gas deposits in our own Karoo region.

“The Operation Phakisa ocean economy initiative, launched last year, also promises to unveil more oil and gas resources, which will be a game-changer for our country and region.”

The government also began procurement in December 2014 of 2400 megawatts of new coal-fired power generation capacity from independent power producers.

Zuma said the procurement process for 2400MW of new gas fired generation would start in the first quarter of the new financial year, with a total of 2600MW of hydro-electric capacity to also be sourced from the SADC region.

Given deteriorating economic conditions, rising unemployment, growing – and often violent – public anger at the poor delivery of public services and the undeniable and continuing reality of “load shedding” power outages, this year’s address was, of necessity, a departure from the more obviously congratulatory tone seen in previous years.

Zuma also committed the country to an expanded nuclear power program capable of generating 9600MW as part of the government’s “integrated resource plan 2010-2030”

The US, France, South Korea, Russia and China are all shaping up as contenders for the construction of the new nuclear plants, and the government has set a target of having the first plant operational by 2023.

“All these countries will be engaged in a fair, transparent, and competitive procurement process to select a strategic partner or partners to undertake the nuclear build program,” Zuma said in his address.

“Our target is to connect the first unit to the grid by 2023, just in time for Eskom to retire part of its aging power plants.

“With regards to hydro power, the Grand Inga hydroelectric project partnership with the Democratic Republic of Congo will generate over 48,000MW of clean hydro-electricity. South Africa will have access to over 15,000MW.

“For sustainability, government will establish strategic partnerships for skills development with the countries that will partner us in the Energy Build Programme, while also generating skills locally.”

Future Directions International Indian Ocean research program manager Leighton Luke said that in citing the economic slowdown and focussing on the electricity crisis, the president effectively conceded that his earlier target of 5% economic growth by 2019 may now be difficult to achieve.

“That is a brave admission, as failure to achieve that target could have repercussions for the ANC at that year’s general election,” Luke said.

“It would make it even more difficult for the ruling party to refute the claims of poor governance and under-performance levelled against it by the DA and the EFF, to which it has already ceded ground.

“The ANC’s opponents and the South African public will be watching for successful outcomes to this year’s SONA as never before.”

Chaotic scenes

In a move to demonstrate the government’s awareness of voter concerns amid a steady stream of poor statistics, Zuma’s office called on the public to use social media to advise him of suggestions for his state of the nation speech.

“Unfortunately for the president, the majority of replies consisted of demands for his resignation or the repayment of public monies spent on the multi-million rand upgrade of his private homestead at Nkandla,” Luke said.

In a chaotic scene, MPs from the militant, far Left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) followed through on their earlier threat to disrupt proceedings when they interrupted Zuma’s address to demand that he repay the R246 million spent on the Nkandla upgrade.

In response, EFF President Julius Malema and deputy leader Floyd Shivambu were evicted from the chamber, which was quickly followed by a brawl between the remaining EFF MPs and police personnel and parliamentary security staff.

Soon after, opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) MPs walked out after the Speaker Baleka Mbete failed to answer a question from DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane as to whether the officers who had evicted the EFF MPs had been actual police officers.

Once the dust had settled, Zuma used his state of the nation address to spell out measures to solve the severe electricity shortages and which have been among the more significant contributors to the country’s poor economic performance.

Unemployment, for instance, stubbornly remains at just below 25% and 54% of South Africans live below the official poverty line of R25.50 per day.