Government at Fault in S. Africa's Electricity Crisis, Mbeki Says

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 9, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 8 -- President Thabo Mbeki apologized Friday for his government's failure to prevent crippling power outages across South Africa and warned that restoring a reliable supply of electricity would require new projects and major cuts in usage.

"We face an emergency, but we can overcome the problems in a relatively short period," Mbeki said in his televised state of the nation address, delivered in Cape Town at the annual opening session of Parliament. "This situation has precipitated the inevitable realization that the era of very cheap and abundant electricity has come to an end."

Mbeki also asserted that his mediation of the eight-year-old political stalemate in Zimbabwe had resolved all "substantive matters" there. His assessment sharply contradicted the accounts of Zimbabwe's major opposition party, which has repeatedly said talks there collapsed over several intractable disputes.

But the largest part of the wide-ranging speech, which Mbeki delivered in a monotone while rarely looking up from a text on the lectern, was devoted to South Africa's electrical shortage. He offered his most forceful and comprehensive response yet to the crisis, which has snarled traffic, darkened homes and idled vast sectors of Africa's largest economy.

The shortages had long been predicted, as demand rose swiftly because of a post-apartheid economic boom. But the government, which was seeking to privatize power generation, for years blocked plans by the state-owned utility, Eskom, to expand supply and extend access to more black South Africans.

The crucial mining industry was forced to shut down for several days last month when Eskom warned that it could not guarantee enough power for the service elevators that move miners in and out of the deep shafts.

As the blackouts grew worse, with some areas losing power for hours nearly every day, Eskom said relief was five to seven years away because major new coal and nuclear power plant projects would take at least that long to complete.

But Mbeki said in his speech that faster improvements were possible. He called for programs to encourage more-efficient lighting, solar water heaters and rapid development of gas-turbine plants, which are less efficient than some other technologies but can be built much more quickly.

He also called for new investment in renewable energy sources.

Eskom has announced that it will begin rationing electricity to avoid unscheduled outages. Mbeki said government agencies will find ways to reduce usage as well.

"Please feel free to name and shame those that do not," he said.

Mbeki acknowledged the concerns of international investors over several recent upheavals, including the case of national police chief Jackie Selebi, who was placed on leave amid corruption allegations, and Mbeki's recent replacement as president of the ruling African National Congress by Jacob Zuma. Mbeki had fired Zuma in 2005 as the nation's deputy president, also over corruption allegations.

"It would be irresponsible to ignore these and other concerns or dismiss them as mere jeremiads typical of the prophets of doom," Mbeki said. "The real challenge is to respond to them in a manner that conveys the definite message to everybody in our country, and the millions in Africa and elsewhere in the world who watch our country with keen interest, that we remain firm in our resolve to continue building the kind of South Africa that has given hope not only to our people but also to many others outside our borders."

Zuma, who watched the speech from a gallery overlooking the chamber, later told the South African Press Association, "I think what the president has announced is indicating positiveness . . . saying wherever there are gaps, we have got to do extraordinary things to ensure that we implement our programs."

Zimbabwean opposition leaders have complained that Mbeki's mediation had failed to resolve urgent matters, namely the timing of the coming elections and the implementation of a transitional constitution.

"There's no agreement," said Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the largest faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, speaking from Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. "There's no talks. It's still a deadlock. The whole dialogue is in the mortuary."

The two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change have said that without the political freedoms entrenched in the new constitution, elections under President Robert Mugabe would be neither free nor fair. They also called for the vote, scheduled for March 29, to be delayed to allow the implementation of new laws.

In his speech, Mbeki referred to the remaining issues as a "procedural matter" and said mediation would continue.

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