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Rather than being laser-focused on fixing his immense failure to bring renewables online, Minister Gwede Mantashe seems set on using the energy crisis to push through ever more expensive, polluting, and problematic projects, which, if they ever materialise, will enrich some connected cadres and corporations, writes Alex Lenferna

In what may be the most tone-deaf event of the year, the Wits Business School decided to host an ‘Energy Transition Leadership Masterclass’ delivered by none other than Gwede Mantashe, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy.

Judging by the responses online, it was received poorly by South Africans living through a devastating energy crisis. A crisis for which fewer people are more responsible than Mantashe himself.

Mantashe, in his usual style, used the public platform provided to him to spread a litany of half-truths, falsehoods, and misinformation to deflect blame from him and his government’s failures. He also used the opportunity to promote his usual false solutions to the energy crisis, which would line the pockets of the few while making our energy more expensive, polluting, and unreliable.

The sheer amount of misinformation spread by the minister is hard to keep track of. It’s akin to what debaters call a ‘Gish gallop’ or ‘firehose technique’. It’s where you spread so much nonsense that your fellow debaters are left drowning in misinformation, not sure what to believe or even where to begin responding.

It would take pages to pick through all of Mantashe’s misinformation, so here I focus on just some of his more outrageous whoppers.

One of the biggest lies, amidst some stiff competition, was Mantashe’s claim that South Africa prematurely closed the Komati coal power station in order to secure climate finance. As a result, he says the people of Komati have been left with an unjust transition.

The reality is that Komati was due for retirement and was closed in accordance with the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan developed by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) under Minister Mantashe. It was then retired behind the schedule that they set out.

Despite the delays in retiring Komati, the DMRE failed to deliver a truly just transition for the workers and community of Komati. Delivering a just transition is largely the job of the DMRE. So, when Mantashe decries the failure to deliver a just transition at Komati, he is admitting to failing in his job.

Attacking Komati seems to be a key part of Mantashe’s strategy to slow down the transition to renewables. If Mantashe can delegitimise the energy transition, he can help build resistance to it. He can also shift blame for his government’s failures to bogeymen like the West, or environmentalists.

A snail’s pace transition

Mantashe falsely claimed that his opponents want to transition away from coal and to renewables overnight. Such a caricature is a gross misrepresentation of his critics. What most who criticise him do want is a much more rapid renewables rollout than Mantashe’s failures have allowed for.

Renewables and storage are key to tackling both the energy and the climate crisis. Thanks to rapid technological advancements, they are the most affordable and cleanest energy options available, contrary to Mantashe’s misleading figures on the costs of renewables.

They’re also the fastest way to bring new energy online and end load shedding once and for all. Yet years went by under Mantashe’s watch with no new grid-scale renewable energy brought onto the grid as he delayed the procurement process for new renewables.

This was while Eskom was issuing a code red that it desperately needed new energy generation to stem load shedding. The result of those delays is the deepening crisis we face.

The large-scale renewable energy procurement programme that Mantashe oversees is also in total disarray. That’s due largely to his department’s failures to properly regulate it, or to ensure that the renewables projects his office approved had grid access.

The result is that the renewables programme has ground to a snail’s pace at precisely the time we desperately need new energy.

Let’s not forget Mantashe’s ill-fated emergency power procurement programme either. Those projects were supposed to be chosen on the condition that they must “connect power to the grid by June 2022”.

Yet, more than three years after the programme was created, it looks unlikely that the majority of the projects will ever reach financial close, never mind break ground (or water in this case).

The programme has largely failed because it awarded almost the entire allocation to the scandal-ridden power ships projects. It did so through what the President’s Economic Advisory Council called a process “specially written for more expensive power ships and gas-to-power projects, and to exclude competition” from more readily available, cleaner, and affordable renewable projects.

Peddling false solutions

Rather than being laser-focused on fixing his immense failures to bring renewables online, Mantashe seems set on using this crisis to push through ever more expensive, polluting, and problematic projects, which, if they ever materialise, will enrich some connected cadres and corporations.

Against all the evidence, Mantashe told the audience that coal is not dead. Rather, its future lies in so-called clean coal technologies.

The truth is that coal is simply more expensive than renewables. Then, if you add technologies to try to make coal a little less polluting, coal becomes even more expensive.

The evidence is clear—clean coal is a dirty lie and not an economically viable one either.

Another economic non-starter is Mantashe’s attempts to launch a new nuclear programme at “a pace and rate that the country can afford”.

If he listened to his own government’s recent modelling and recommendations, he would know that new nuclear power is too expensive and too slow to solve our energy crisis. It would make our energy much less affordable than a renewable energy future.

Last, but not least, is Mantashe’s aggressive push to develop gas in South Africa in partnership with Western multinationals like Shell and Total. With staggering hypocrisy, he is describing the people of South Africa who resist such projects as foreign-funded agents. All the while, he conveniently ignores how the ANC is funded by a host of polluting and rapacious corporations like Shell.

Another inconvenient fact Mantashe ignores is that Shell is part of the National Business Initiative. Contrary to Mantashe’s gas-fuelled dreams, even studies by that oil and gas-filled business lobby show that we need very little gas as part of our energy transition. Far from being a panacea to our energy woes, gas is an expensive and polluting fossil fuel that should be avoided as much as possible.

Wits’ BS

Adding up all these failures, fibs, and false solutions, one wonders who, at the Wits Business School, thought Mantashe is well suited to deliver a masterclass on the energy transition?

The truth is, it’s tiring having to repeatedly listen to and debunk Mantashe’s misinformation. It’s even worse that our “respected” academic institutions are giving him a platform and legitimising his views.

What made it an even more debasing performance was how many members of the Wits team and audience seemed to abandon their academic rigour in how they responded. Many sounded like sycophants, asking softball questions and flattering Mantashe. They even laughed along as Mantashe jokingly bragged about being labelled ‘Polluter of the Year’ by the media.

I’d like to see them laugh so brazenly in the face of the victims of pollution in South Africa who lose their health and livelihoods and even their lives—thousands of lives every year.

Perhaps they should have a chuckle in the faces of the victims of the countless climate disasters destroying communities and ecosystems across the world.

Another place where the audience laughed along, albeit a bit more nervously, was when Mantashe went on his now-standard, anti-civil society rant, accusing them of being foreign-funded forces for challenging his agenda.

They should have been a lot more nervous, given that the government is trying to pass a draconian law to stifle civil society, as Mantashe has been calling for.

The Wits host brought the session to a close by saying they do not deny climate change. Climate denial, however, comes in a range of forms, including spreading misinformation to block the solutions we need to address the crisis.

Apart from the physical gift they gave to Mantashe, the event they hosted was a public relations gift to one of South Africa’s worst and most powerful deniers.

Perhaps when we look at the fact that the centre that hosted the talk is funded by and partners with the likes of Shell and Sasol, we should not be surprised.

Perhaps what we saw was not just a masterclass in misinformation, but also a window into the capture of academia. Academic integrity, climate stability and energy security suffer, while academics sing for their supper.

Alex Lenferna is general secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition and a postdoctoral research fellow in the Nelson Mandela University Department of Development Studies.

This article originally appeard on Daily Maverick and is published with permission.

By Editor