PETER ATTARD MONTALTO: A lot of money is riding on SA’s credibility and coherence

Climate envoys from the north will find a haphazard jigsaw of policy and personas.
This column was first published in Business Day. 


There are reams of critical thought on what a mature democracy is and is not. Much can then be said about the Constitutional Court, the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) and the like. But I think that the department of minerals & energy has added a more useful test case in the past week.

At issue is a satirical video from Politically Aweh, showing an “advert” from the “DMRE” promoting a pro-coal and pro-carbon line, which was genuinely funny. Maybe I found it more funny than most having spent so much time in recent years with head in hands on energy policy. It was some light relief.

The problem was the department’s po-faced response, labelling it fake news and warning journalists and others not to disseminate it. They didn’t just not find it funny but saw the public as at risk of being taken in — an interesting view of the IQ of the public in the run-up to an election. Taking oneself too seriously, a pomposity on the part of functionaries, has been an affliction of successive administrations. It suggests a lack of self-confidence.

Investors pick up on these things in subtle ways. Self-confidence in future energy policy may well become a “thing” through COP26 as funders pick up not only on the actual policy itself (is it Paris-aligned?) but also the likelihood of implementation and the trust in implementation. SA policymakers underestimate these latter two issues. So much of the discussions I have with clients is about trust in policy direction as much as the direction itself.

All this suggests a deftness of touch in policymaking is lacking in some quarters and is sorely needed.

The fact that the risk mitigation round of energy procurement (2GW of “emergency” power generation) now resembles the undead — as local content procurement, corruption, vested interests and multiple court cases all bear down to make financial close unlikely yet — is a problem not because it has been derailed per se but because policymakers have been unable to recognise this obvious fact and adapt to it quickly with alternatives. The Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme may well end up being one of the very things that prevent trust improving.

Trust is a funny commodity. It is easily lost but not easily won back. Yet another collapse in the prospects of spectrum auctions and digital migration in recent weeks destroyed what little trust was starting to build thanks to the efforts of Operation Vulindlela as vested interests and (new) ministerial fiddling reasserted themselves on the (even under perfect conditions) highly complex process.

The department of minerals & energy provided another fascinating example in the past week. A speech by minister Gwede Mantashe shocked the energy community because it said all the right things on renewables — infused with a seemingly  new sense of excitement about the energy transition that he has not shown before. Hooray…?

In fact the consensus seemed to be that the speech was not trusted. How can you say the exact opposite of what you said to the presidential climate commission a month earlier — and who had suddenly been hired to write this different sounding speech anyway?

The problem that unpins all this is a view of policymaking as these long, slow arcs — from ANC policy and elective conference to the following ANC policy and elective conference five years later. External shocks are sometimes required to jolt the system — whether that is COP26 or the Covid crisis — yet the system struggles to adapt between these major events and policymakers get stuck looking backwards.

An external shock on the climate front is about to arrive in the coming two weeks: envoys from “the north”.

There are two ways to look at this. Either the colonialists are back telling poor SA what to do. Or else it’s a wake-up call to the policy elite of the direction of global travel on the climate policy front, which will have implications for SA — but funding (possibly in very large size) is available to support just such  an energy transition.

These envoys are likely to find a mixed bag. A meeting with the presidential climate commission will suggest an agile mindset that is building trust as an institution both through its methods and through its outputs. They will find a receptive partner at the department of environment, forestry & fisheries (though, rightly, some pushback on an excessive focus on the environmental front and a need for balance versus the social or “just” elements of the transition).

They may be perplexed meeting the Treasury, which has not become a thought leader in climate financing issues and still views the topic as a tax issue. And the minerals & energy department may be the most interesting of all. Perhaps the minister will hide from the envoys — rather avoid uncomfortable truths from people who can see through the bluster. Or perhaps he will want to give them a lecture. Eskom might be their most interesting meeting — a leader in André de Ruyter with a plan but struggling to fit into the haphazard jigsaw of energy policy.

All this is a game that can most effectively be played when trust and agility are in abundance. Some of these role players have it and some don’t.

The recent ANC lekgotla outcomes showed in the broadest generalities there can be some movement, though the hard facts haven’t been landed yet: the need for more rapid coal decommissioning than the Eskom and Integrated Resource Plan baseline is the most obvious.

The job of the president in the run-up to COP26 will be to squidge this whole mix of forces and role players together into a cohesive whole that accepts these hard facts — requiring some political capital deployment and some toe-stepping.

There is a lot of money, credibility and trust at stake.

Attard Montalto is head of capital markets research at Intellidex, an SA research-led consulting company.