South Africans have welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent announcement on a “set of measures” to respond to the country’s energy crisis.
The plan These are steps to improve the performance of electricity company Eskom’s power plants, accelerate the procurement of new energy capacity and make it easier for companies and households to invest in solar energy on roofs. The plan also provides for the fundamental transformation of the electricity sector.
Frustration and anger have risen in the country over power cuts, which have become a fact of life since April 2008. Not only are they a major inconvenience to households and essential services, the economy is also being hit hard. Estimates suggest power outages have cost the economy R4 billion (over US$238 million) per day.
The worst of the rolling cuts were experienced in July 2022. These were partly the result of illegal industrial action and theft and vandalism at power plants. Hence the president’s announcement.
Before, during and after the recent severe power cuts, political will has often been cited as one of the main reasons governments are having a hard time introducing solutions. The energy and infrastructure economics consultancy Meridian Economics argued on its site that “substantial political will” was critical to the success of such a strategy.
The impression that has been created is that political will is the only missing ingredient.
But this reasoning is simplistic. As a researcher in water management and political science for nearly three decades, I often encounter the silver bullet effect of political will when scientists use it to solve crises. These can range from climate change to poverty and water problems to corruption.
From a scientific perspective, such a conclusion shows a direct and linear cause and effect between substantial political will and ending the crisis. But the issue is much more complex. To meet each major challenge, much more is needed, such as sufficient acceptance of the reforms by the majority of political actors and society in general.
Below I explain why political will is not the panacea many wish to solve the electricity crisis in South Africa.
A concept that is easily discussed
a straight forward definition political will is when an actor is willing to devote time, energy, funds and political capital to bring about change. It is equated with political engagement.
What complicates the story of South Africa’s electricity crisis and the (lack of) political will is that the concept is used as the standard catchphrase to indicate the fundamental problem when discussing power outages, their causes and solutions.
But political will as a concept is very vague. Its use does not enrich the understanding of the political and policy processes involved in addressing a problem. Commentators omit various elements of political will, politics and policy processes. Political will becomes only a rhetorical instrument.
This does not mean that political will does not play a role in policy outcomes. But it is not the only requirement. To implement policies “successfully” and achieve the desired results, a number of other inputs and conditions are needed. These include economic resources, knowledge, skills, time, a capable state, a robust justice system and a favorable global context.
It goes even deeper than these requirements for the policy’s chance of success. Ramaphosa’s announcement shows a policy bias. But preferences are distributed among many political actors outside the electricity reform process.
The main question is whether they will accept them.
South Africa’s second largest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), has already indicated that it does not believe the plan will end the power cuts. It also argues that the government is effectively privatizing electricity generation and distribution and that this will raise energy prices to unaffordable levels for poor people.
The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, supports the ideaalthough he points out that it is far too late.
The Solidarity trade union advocates privatization of the electricity sector. She has submitted a proposal to the government for the involvement of experts who previously worked at Eskom. The government and Eskom reacted positively to the idea. But whether it will be included in policy remains an open question.
Political power is another ingredient to consider when talking about political will. This comes down to the ability, authority and legitimacy of key decision-makers. If political power and policy options, along with other resources, form major barriers, the government will struggle to implement the actions. In other words, it will lack political will.
Also weakly cherished, easily ignored or insincere policy preferences can negatively affect the political will to implement the strategy.
The main question here is whether the government and the governing party can maintain their position on the action plan.
In the coming months, intent signals for this position will provide the answer to this question. Things to look for include the credibility of the strategy, a willingness to impose sanctions for violating the policy, and the application of evidence-based efforts to promote it.
To get a more nuanced assessment of the ruling party’s political will to implement the plan, business and society must examine and thoroughly analyze these underlying elements. Political will consists of a number of sub-components. These should be taken into account when assessing the government’s overall political will to solve the problem.
For now, the paradigm shift shows that the government has the political will to step out of its comfort zone, explore new areas and take risks based on rational decision-making. In the coming months, South Africa will receive the necessary signals to show whether the government and the ruling party are truly committed to the strategy to end the power crisis.
These signals will either show risks to the plan or further opportunities that can be exploited.
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