Accessibility links

Breaking News

South Africa Looks to China to Shed Light on Power Crisis

FILE - Locals walk past electricity pylons in Soweto, South Africa, July 3, 2022.
FILE - Locals walk past electricity pylons in Soweto, South Africa, July 3, 2022.

South Africa's worst ever energy crisis has the country reeling amid daily blackouts, but new Minister for Electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa is hoping China can provide a light in the darkness.

Ramokgopa said earlier this month that he’d soon be announcing details of a “major grant” from China of equipment like solar panels and generators, following Beijing’s offer to help South Africa with its energy woes by providing renewable energy equipment and expertise.

Following Ramokgopa’s one-week visit to China, details of any concrete deals remain scant, with the minister’s spokesperson telling VOA Tuesday that any agreements from the trip would only be made public when they are finalized.

While in China, Ramokgopa visited Shanghai Electric, renewable energy company Goldwind, Huawei and other enterprises.

“The visit to Huawei forms part of our efforts of finding solutions to reinforce the grid. South Africa has abundant solar resources, making it a prime location for the development of solar energy projects,” he tweeted after that meeting.

He also met with officials from the National Energy Administration in Beijing, tweeting: “The discussion was monumental in establishing what will be a lasting partnership in aid of our pursuance for energy security in South Africa.”

Chinese expertise

A combination of factors including aging and neglected coal power stations, as well as alleged government corruption and mismanagement at state power utility Eskom, have led to severe power shortages in South Africa that have only intensified over the past year.

Experts have warned of the possibility of a complete collapse of the grid, and to save electricity the government has implemented what is known as “loadshedding” – daily scheduled power outages across the country, sometimes for up to 10 hours a day.

As Africa’s most developed economy, the crisis has hit the country hard, with businesses suffering and citizens furious at being plunged into darkness most nights.

Polls have suggested the government’s failure to deal with the problem—which also comes amid high unemployment and other ills – could cost the ruling African National Congress party it’s electoral majority for the first time in next year’s polls.

China and South Africa have close diplomatic and economic relations, with China the country's biggest trading partner and both belonging to the BRICS group of emerging economies. Trade between the two reached $56 billion last year and South Africa is also one of the largest investment destinations for Chinese enterprises on the continent.

Earlier this month, China’s ambassador offered to send technical experts to train South Africans, saying that China is now the world's leading country in terms of installed capacity of hydro, wind and solar power.

“As South Africa’s good brother, good friend and good partner, China very much relates to the challenges here and we are ready to provide support to South Africa within our capacity,” Ambassador Chen Xiaodong said in his address to the China-South Africa New Energy Investment and Cooperation Conference in Johannesburg.

“China’s State Grid will also send a team of experts to South Africa very soon to provide technical advice,” he said, in the remarks emailed to VOA by the Chinese embassy.

Help welcome

While Western countries have given funding to South Africa for its move away from reliance on fossil fuels towards renewables, Reuters quoted Ramokgopa as saying China was the only country willing to assist South Africa “without any condition.”

Asked whether it would welcome Chinese help, a spokesperson for Eskom, the state power utility, told VOA: “Any credible assistance in ensuring that we end loadshedding is appreciated.”

Ghaleb Cachalia, a member of parliament for the opposition Democratic Alliance and the party’s public enterprises spokesperson, told VOA that “while the offer from China is interesting, we need to remember that nothing comes for free.”

However, Cobus van Staden, a China expert at the South African Institute for International Affairs, told VOA he thought there was a lot of “potential good” in China and South Africa cooperating to ease the power crisis.

“Firstly, China’s obviously the world’s largest producer of solar and other renewable energy equipment…and also China’s by far the largest actual implementer of green energy, so in terms of locating equipment and technical capacity China’s a very robust partner,” he said.

Van Staden said he didn’t foresee major pitfalls, saying, ”I think this is an emerging field of Chinese engagement with the Global South, and of course from the perspective of Global South countries it’s extremely welcome.”

But as details are still lacking, he cautioned, “it will depend a lot on the specifics, of what’s being given, how the financing will work, you know, what is actually being planned.”