Call for free electricity is beyond mind-boggling
Andile Mngxitama’s utterances at the Soweto protest smack of populism
A WEEK in South Africa has proven to be insufficient for the country’s demagoguery politics. And since we are in the age of amendments, perhaps we should also amend our calendar to make enough room for all the politics of the country.
Reminiscent of the 1976 student uprising that brought an overhaul to the apartheid Bantu education system, Sowetans took to the streets this week to demand the provision of free electricity from the state, exclusively for their township. This is notwithstanding the fact that Soweto owes Eskom more than R18 billion in electricity bills.
Not to be outdone, the leader of the de-registered blacks only organisation, Black First Land First (BLF), Andile Mngxitama, weighed in behind the Soweto free electricity march, and, as always, lampooned and labelled those who did not sympathise with the march as “fools with a slave mentality”.
Mngxitama took the demand for free electricity to its illogical conclusion, arguing, as it were, that: “People don’t know that there’s no manufacturer of coal, it’s a God-given product. You just go and take it out of the ground. God has given you coal for free. Just like if you move to clean energy, being solar and air – these things are for free.”
Prima facie, Mngxitama’s argument appears to have some merit to it, but it falls on its head once we start to consider the fact that coal needs to be mined underground by equipment that needs maintenance and labour, which must be remunerated.
You don’t have to be an energy expert to know that the process of electricity generation requires more than just coal, as Mngxitama would have everyone believe.
But from where does Soweto and Mngxitama’s claim of the right to free electricity arise? The right to free electricity certainly does not arise from the supreme law of the republic, nor any act of Parliament. It may well be a figment of Mngxitama’s imagination.
While our Constitution expressly makes provision for: the right to have access to adequate housing; the right to health care, food, water and social security; and the right to basic and further education, it does not expressly make any mention of the right to free electricity.
Accordingly, the right to free electricity certainly cannot be assumed. It must be established. Moreover, all the above-mentioned socio-economic rights as enshrined in the Constitution are qualified. For example, section 27 (2) states: “The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights.”
Essentially, what this means is that these rights are not absolute. They have their own internal qualifiers over and above Section 36 (commonly known as the limitation clause) in the Constitution.
In the case of Soobramoney v Minister of Health, KwaZulu-Natal, for example, the Constitutional Court was called upon to deal with the right to health care as enshrined in section 27 (1) of the Constitution.
The applicant, in this case, claimed the provision of kidney dialysis treatment from a provincial state hospital, based on his right to emergency medical treatment and his right to life on a substantive reading.
The court dismissed the claim based on these two rights. In doing so, the court stated that section 27(1)(a) was qualified by section 27(2), which inter alia, determined that the state was only required to give effect to the section 27(1 )(a) right within its available resources.
The court then found that the respondent had shown that it had limited resources available for the provision of kidney dialysis treatment that did not allow it to provide the treatment to all who required it.
The respondent had further shown that it had developed a set of reasonable and fair criteria to decide who would receive the limited treatment available and who would not, and that those criteria had been applied in good faith in the case.
However, to be fair to all the proponents of free electricity demand, let us assume that the Constitution made provision for free electricity, but then proceed to ask the question: Does the state have the capacity or the means to realise the implementation of such a right, even “progressively”?
The answer is in the negative. In his Budget speech, Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni paints a dire picture of our economic situation. The minister reminded us of the following:
● For 2020/21, revenue is projected to be R1.58 trillion or 29.2% of GDP. Expenditure is projected at R1.95 trillion, or 36% of GDP. This means a consolidated budget deficit of R370.5 billion, or 6.8% of GDP in 2020/21.
● The total government debt burden now equals almost 66% of South Africa’s total economy – and repayments on this debt are growing by more than 12% a year.
● The government will, over the next three years, allocate more than R112bn to Eskom to keep the stateowned power supplier afloat.
How a person in this type of economic quagmire can argue for the provision of free electricity is certainly beyond me.
As Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Honourable Ronald Lamola, posited in his debate speech for the State of the Nation Address: “As a matter of historical record, Mr President, we are taught that whenever reforms are introduced and decisions are made, to press the re-set button of any nation, demagogues, and opportunists will always seek to seize the opportunity to mislead the masses. They will offer instant solutions that are far from reality.
“They do this by apportioning blame on the reformist, by making unguided and misinformed pronouncements on matters of governance in general, and the economy in particular. They do so to project the reformist leadership as sell-outs to the revolution.”
SOWETO residents protest over ‘unaffordable’ electricity. The township owes more than R18 billion to Eksom.