Gwede keeps an ob­sti­nate fin­ger on the ‘off’ switch

Sunday Times - - Opinion - PETER BRUCE

In what passes for mod­ern man­u­fac­tur­ing in SA, hopes don’t soar higher or fall faster than in the tale I’m about to tell you. The story ends with a full stop etched with the face of min­er­als & en­ergy min­is­ter Gwede Man­tashe. ART­so­lar’s fac­tory is the last pho­to­voltaic-panel man­u­fac­tur­ing plant left in SA. It is in New Ger­many, an in­dus­trial area close to Dur­ban. It is an im­mac­u­late fa­cil­ity filled with the most mod­ern equip­ment, im­ported mainly from Switzer­land. It was built to make so­lar pan­els for re­new­able en­ergy projects ini­ti­ated dur­ing the regime of for­mer pres­i­dent Jacob Zuma.

It stood for ev­ery­thing for­mer eco­nomic devel­op­ment min­is­ter Ebrahim Pa­tel, who is now trade & in­dus­try min­is­ter, dreamt of for the re-in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of the coun­try. New in­dus­tries feed­ing new tech­nolo­gies. His New Growth Path specif­i­cally fo­cused on man­u­fac­tur­ing for re­new­able en­ergy.

For a while there was a rush of in­vest­ment in the sec­tor. At its height, three years ago, the ART­so­lar plant em­ployed 240 peo­ple in a clean and in­no­va­tive work­place, with ex­cited pri­vate sec­tor share­hold­ers con­vinced they had fi­nally found a prof­itable and re­spon­si­ble way to con­trib­ute to the devel­op­ment of a new coun­try.

ART­So­lar pro­duced 250,000 pan­els for a so­lar farm project near Prieska in the arid North­ern Cape.

The work­ers at the plant were trained by Chi­nese and Tai­wanese ex­perts and be­came con­sid­er­ably ex­pe­ri­enced them­selves. One of the in­ter­na­tional in­vestors was BYD, a mas­sive Chi­nese in­dus­trial con­glom­er­ate that now runs the big­gest elec­tric ve­hi­cle fa­cil­ity in China and is listed in New York.

Sadly, as you can an­tic­i­pate, it does not end well.

The ART­so­lar plant has just 11 em­ploy­ees left. I don’t know what they do. BYD left the con­sor­tium. For the past three years, 225 highly trained work­ers have been out of work. En­treaties to the de­part­ment of trade & in­dus­try for work have gone nowhere. The com­pany has made losses for the past 36 months. The re­main­ing share­hold­ers can­not hold out much longer.

It is nau­se­at­ing. Start­ing with state cap­ture un­der Zuma and then neg­li­gence un­der Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa, no new re­new­able en­ergy projects have come on­stream since about 2014. A string of them have al­ready been li­censed by the Na­tional En­ergy Reg­u­la­tor of SA, but that’s not enough. To be able to go to a bank and raise the money to buy so­lar pan­els from ART­so­lar, li­censed bid­win­dow win­ners from round 4 (2014) would need Man­tashe to pick up his tele­phone and tell the in­de­pen­dent power pro­ducer (IPP) of­fice to call the wait­ing li­censees and tell them to “close” their fi­nanc­ing. A year later they’d be able to lay down their first so­lar pan­els.

ART­so­lar doesn’t have a year. Man­tashe has had ages in of­fice and views re­new­able en­ergy as a threat, not a so­lu­tion. He still has not picked up the phone to the IPP of­fice, de­spite re­cent com­mit­ments to do so in the wake of stage 6 load-shed­ding by Eskom this month.

Con­cerned that his gov­ern­ment might be seen not to be tak­ing our en­ergy cri­sis se­ri­ously, Ramaphosa him­self wrote for Daily Mav­er­ick last week, as­sur­ing us the cabi­net (Man­tashe in­cluded) was pulling out all the stops. I’m not so sure.

Ramaphosa has to dance around Man­tashe and you see it in his ar­ti­cle. It pro­ceeds from the fi­nal­is­ing of the In­te­grated Re­source Plan (our en­ergy mix) in Oc­to­ber. Noth­ing hap­pened af­ter that un­til Eskom’s stage 6 hor­ror. Then the cabi­net met ur­gently and put out a re­quest for in­for­ma­tion (an RFI), a sort of fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion to see what more might be out there. The gov­ern­ment’s pro­gramme, the pres­i­dent said, would pri­ori­tise power projects that could de­liver power into the grid in the short­est pos­si­ble time, within six to 12 months of ap­proval.

“Through the RFI,” Ramaphosa wrote, “gov­ern­ment will be able to es­tab­lish the po­ten­tial for new power pro­duc­tion in the coun­try and to [en­sure] that elec­tric­ity pro­cured is af­ford­able and in line with the en­ergy mix out­lined in the IRP.”

Trou­ble is that “the elec­tric­ity pro­cured is … in line with the en­ergy mix out­lined in the IRP” is Man­tashe speak­ing. Re­new­ables will have to wait in line while his am­bi­tious quick-fix fan­tasies for gas and float­ing power sta­tions are end­lessly con­sid­ered be­fore be­ing re­jected by the Trea­sury.

There are at least five win­dow 4 win­ners still wait­ing to be given the go-ahead to “close” nearly six years af­ter post­ing win­ning bids. That’s Man­tashe’s fault and he is Ramaphosa’s prob­lem, but the “win­ners” will prob­a­bly have to whis­tle Dixie. Two weeks ago the coun­try’s last fac­tory mak­ing wind-power equip­ment was auctioned off in Port El­iz­a­beth. ART­so­lar will prob­a­bly be­come an in­dus­trial relic too. The ANC never misses an op­por­tu­nity to miss an op­por­tu­nity.

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