PETER ATTARD MONTALTO: Taking a calm stance in the face of the storm

It is quite something sitting in a boardroom in Sandton talking calmly about contingency planning for a blackout. People really struggle to deal with low-probability, high-impact events, but seem better at crisis planning.

In general, I think the risk of blackout was underestimated until about two to three months ago, and now is being overestimated by many. Eskom has a range of manual and automated emergency defence mechanisms (unused until now, and beyond normal load-shedding) which means that above stage 8 you don’t simply end up in a blackout. For a blackout to happen a lot needs to go wrong. But people still do underestimate the effect if it were to happen.

The level of thought given by business collectively and many individually is woeful — worse still is the level of planning between the government and business. Sure, there has been the odd conversation, the odd round table, but this does not count for real crisis planning. The inability for the diesel supply network to cope with sustained stage 6 and beyond and effect of a communications breakdown need much more serious thought. The lack of planning is one of the few things that keep me awake at night.

Ultimately a blackout would be a credibility-destroying event for the government regardless of who should be blamed and what happened in the 1990s and so on. This makes the poor state of planning all the more surprising.

Yet this winter (with its peak risk point for a blackout at high stages of load-shedding as we peak at stage 8 and possibly higher) is likely the worse point in the energy crisis. If energy intensity of GDP can continue to fall — aided now by a resurgence in interest in demand-side management as well as continued (now motivated) investment in embedded household and business generation — then a recovery in aggregate demand (slowly, capped by the silent Transnet crisis) should mean load-shedding will decrease in 2024.

This split between talking about extreme tail risks on the downside and then a path out of a crisis, leaves people seasick.

Of course, this assumes many things go right. People are struggling to keep an interest in the National Energy Crisis Committee (NECOM) precisely because it is so much in the weeds with a forthcoming omnibus bill and the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill about to be tabled in parliament and various work behind the scenes on wheeling and net billing — this is not the sexy stuff of cutting ribbons on wind farms. Yet the trade data shows a sharp shift is going on and will continue. All interest here seems off the table until we can ride the post-winter peak wave to lower load-shedding. Markets may then regain interest.

In this seasick state, people are getting confused. Indeed, our dear (still) powerless electricity minister is still confusing the difference between 10-year life extensions of a plant vs running a plant for an extra year or two until it falls over. It is amazing how mystical money trees appear to be available for such things, yet the crisis (yes, I use the word deliberately) in the lack of any real transmission investment seems to languish, awaiting a solution and a magic money tree of its own (hint, one exists that is viable using public-private partnerships vs the impossibility of coal plan financing).

The seasick feeling is intensified now with foreign policy and political succession too, not to mention the missteps on communications in the past two weeks. These issues have been much commented on in these pages recently.

What I have seen, however, is that people care little for such drama — and this is not a good thing. It shows a degree of boredom and eye-rolling, especially from foreign corporate and portfolio investors.

Serious harm

Investors don’t believe a word of SA’s foreign policy utterances, while the US and others become alarmed with SA’s Russia stance and even more so with its seeming indifference to its money-laundering and terrorist-financing conduit status.

Serious harm is being done that the government is wilfully ignoring, with so little upside being gained outside the narrow confines of the ANC. SA has chosen its side and — for now rightly — bets that the West will be too afraid to pull the trigger on relationships for fear of pushing SA into the arms of Russia and China. The wake-up call for all sides is that this won’t make the slightest bit of difference to the economy or the West’s strategic interests.

There is, however, still a degree of calm it seems before we see some fed- up reactions from Western capitals when SA steps on a live wire.

The other issue on which investors are remarkably calm is the succession after Ramaphosa as early as after the election in 2024. Again, this has been much commented on in these pages — and I think the likelihood of Ramaphosa stepping down is quite high. But what is more interesting is how in people’s calmness a projection on deputy president Paul Mashatile starts to happen.

Mashatile is an interesting character certainly and has a long career in provincial and ANC positions. One can read some things into how he might become president, but so many business leaders and commentators appear to be willing to project all manner of fantasies onto him which are as yet unproven as he has not held senior national government policymaking leadership positions.

There is clearly a desperation at the subconscious level for someone deeply decisive. All this of course might well be true (and he is springing into action to start to prove it certainly) but how it manifests in people’s expectations is the main thing.

Our gliding so calmly from the “cannot live without Ramaphosa” to “meh, the other guy can be decisive” has been dramatic to watch.

Perhaps this is where the calmness comes from in the face of such uncertainties and as new previously discounted possibilities open up through the fog. It’s all very Zen. Indeed, perhaps it’s an optimal strategy as long as people are ready to jump to action to take advantage of the opportunities that open up or act to protect against the downside risks that materialise.

• Attard Montalto leads on political economy, markets and the just energy transition at Intellidex. This article first appeared in Business Day.