During his State of the Nation Address on 9 February 2023, President Cyril Ramaphosa described South Africa’s energy crisis as an “existential threat to our economy and social fabric”, and promptly went to declare a national state of disaster to respond to this debilitating situation. To the surprise of many, he also announced the appointment of a Minister of Electricity in the Presidency, a position dedicated to firstly ending load shedding and secondly, implementing Government’s 2022 Energy Action Plan.

The term “existential threat” is generally understood to mean that which threatens one’s very existence, survival or future, and in the last few decades has been commonly used in the context of climate change and nuclear warfare. More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin cast the Ukraine War, which he regards as an inevitable consequence of the eastwards expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as an existential threat to both the Russian state, and the Russian people as an ethnic group. 

In order words, according to President Ramaphosa, if South Africa is unable to achieve energy security or a reliable supply of electricity in the foreseeable future, our country could very well collapse and permanently cease to exist. The use of such apocalyptic language was nothing short of a remarkable and candid political statement, especially when understood in the context of the President’s acknowledgment in the same speech, that the seeds of the crisis “were planted many years ago”.

Of course, the President may well have been using hyperbole to emphasize the seriousness of the situation, but to also highlight the extraordinary measures and actions that would be required in the circumstances. Whichever way one looks at it, South Africa is at major cross-roads in its socio-economic development, and in its attempts to create a better future for its citizens. 

I was greatly enthused to read that South Africa’s first ever Minister of Electricity, Dr Kgosientso Ramokgopa, has expressed an interest in exploring solutions and options outside of South Africa’s borders, including with the Germans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Americans, the World Bank, and International Finance Corporation. 

Noting that my host country, the Arab Republic of Egypt, is not on the initial list of countries being consulted, I am compelled to share a fascinating and beautiful story of how a country right here on the African Continent, and in a situation surprisingly like ours, overcame their energy deficiency in record time, and went on to become a net exporter of electricity, in a mere four-years. 

I should also declare upfront that Egypt is one of the few other countries in the world with a ministry dedicated to electricity. In fact, Egypt’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy was established as far as back as 1964, later changing its name to the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy. Bahrain and Kuwait have equivalent ministries, whilst India has a Ministry of Power which is primarily responsible for the development of electrical energy in the country. 

four-year miracle transition – from an energy deficiency to an energy surplus 

Shortly after my arrival in Cairo in January 2021, to take up the post of South Africa’s Ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt, I began to take interest in my host country’s remarkable and seemingly never-ending infrastructure development. I remarked to many of my government and business interlocutors in South Africa, that Cairo was essentially a huge construction zone, often frustratingly so given its impact on traffic and movement within the city. The Egyptian Government has invested significantly in the country’s construction sector, is upgrading all airports, ports, and transportation networks, is building new smart cities, and is constructing a high-speed train to support industrial expansion and to ease movement of people and goods. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is a brand new sparkling mini city, the New Administrative Capital, which will house all government ministries and entities, as well as foreign diplomatic missions. 

All the above would of course be a pipe dream without stable and secure sources of energy. So how did Egypt get there? 

Exactly ten years ago in 2013, Egypt, with a population of 85 million at the time, suffered from a critical power deficiency; the country’s overall power installed capacity was around 30GW, with a power deficiency of about 6GW. Government introduced and applied load shedding which cause power outages that went on for hours. Expectedly, this negatively affected all sectors of the economy and the general wellbeing of the populace with businesses shedding jobs, schools, and medical care institutions as well as households having their activities interrupted and livelihoods curtailed. The nationwide frustration at the situation is something South Africans are well acquainted with. 

Egypt had just come out of a revolution as part of what became known as the Arab Spring, a black swan event that saw many Arab leaders, including the late Hosni Mubarak, deposed. Following his election in 2014, President Al-Sisi made resolving the energy crisis a priority of his administration, and shortly thereafter he announced an emergency energy plan which consisted of four power plants that could provide a combined capacity of over 3GW, in addition to others smaller units located in five sites around Egypt.

According to the US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA), a total of 28229 MW was added to the grid, resulting in a total installed capacity of 55 GW, including both conventional and renewable energy sources, in the three-year period between December 2015 to December 2018.

A combination of the technical skills and expertise of reputable global companies, like Siemens and General Electric, with the local know how and experience of Egyptian companies, such as Orascom Construction and El Sewedy Electric, was critical to achieving unprecedented results in record time. Two of the power plants, Assiut and West Damietta, were successfully connected to the grid in just seven-months after construction began. In 2015, a year since the contracts were awarded, all four initial power plants were connected to the Egyptian National Grid, meeting the immediate consumption adding a total of 3.6GW. The Egyptian Government also signed a massive mega deal with Siemens in 2015, for 3×4.8GW conventional power plants to be built over three years; the largest single order in the German firm’s 169-year history. These are some of the biggest power plants ever built and operated to date, utilizing eight state-of-the-art H-class Gas Turbines. The projects all included extensive training for Egyptian engineers and technicians throughout the cycle of the project.

An all-government approach, supported by enabling exceptional legislation, akin to our National Disaster Act, allowed the government to fast-track decision making inappointing contractors, in facilitating procurement, and in ensuring that all supply chain processes were prioritized in terms of expediting permits and custom clearances, as well as to guarantee the use of the best shipping lines and different shipping modes, in line with the projects’ schedule. According to the Egyptian companies involved, the projects maintained the highest safety, environmental, and international quality standards always. 

The Egyptian government also used various funding models to, in part, reduce the financial burden of fast-tracking the process of addressing the power deficit on the fiscus. These included an assortment of long-term financing packages at attractive interest rates. The government also brought its resources to bear and deployed its most qualified citizens. Where necessary, expertise from outside the country were sought. The country also invested in an energy mix policy that includes oil, gas, hydro, nuclear and renewables. 

All the above was done in parallel with the upgrading and expansion of transmission and distribution grids and the building of new substations, distribution control and grid control centres, including a national control center in the New Administrative Capital. Regulation of energy consumption through replacing old electricity meters with smart pre-paid ones, waste to energy programmes, the roll out of competitive electric vehicles, and a focus on water desalination projects, which requires electric power, are all part of a complex, long-term, and integrated approach to securing Egypt’s energy future. These projects work in symmetry with the country’s industrialization efforts, including minimum requirements for local content for renewable energy projects.

As a result, today Egypt has a surplus of about 13 gigawatts. The Egyptian grid is currently connected to Sudan, Jordan, Libya and Palestine, and plans to establish interconnectors with Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, Greece and Iran being studied. Italy has also expressed an interest in developing an interconnection project with Egypt, to reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels. 

Lessons from the Land of the Pharaohs

Egypt is home to one of the oldest civilisations on earth, and one of the few civilizations that has withstood the onslaught of natural disasters, war, pandemics and famine.The ancient Egyptians having a developed a unique and distinct culture, over an estimated five millennia, are credited with many scientific, religious, technological, and cultural inventions, primary discoveries which led to a chain of connected innovations. 

The colossal 4000-year-old Great Pyramid of Giza is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that remains intact today. Egypt’s magnificent monuments, temples and artwork, and their unique style of preservation of the dead, through mummification, reflect a rich and grand culture that celebrated both life and death. This is testament to a society that has a great capacity for imagination and knowledge, but one which is also able to adapt and evolve, whilst adopting and integrating technology into everyday activities. 

Egypt’s entrenched innovative capacity is reflected once again in what is nothing short of four-year energy revolution. Certainly, when it comes to creating energy security, in a short period of time, there is a lot we can learn from the Egyptians. The challenging desert weather conditions and difficult geographic conditions (rock and sand) faced by the workers on site daily, must also be appreciated and makes this story even more extraordinary. This is a true African success story juxtaposed against general afro-pessimism that we face daily. 

What the Egyptian have achieved in just four years, is no miracle, but simply a stark reminder of what is possible with political will. When bold and novel decisions are taken, when all hands are (truly) on deck, and when all government departments and institutions are working with common purpose and intent, there is no limit to what we can achieve. 

Egypt’s story did not end with it achieving energy security, in fact this sector continues to evolve to achieve a more environmentally sustainable and diverse energy mix. The country’s 2035 Integrated Sustainable Energy Strategyhas a target of increasing renewable sources from the current 20% to 42% by 2030. By comparison, and according to the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), coal still provides 80% of the South Africa’s total system load, whilst renewable energy technologies increased in 2022 and provides 7.3% of the total energy mix. 

Quo Vadis?

Last week was a particularly somber week for the South African economy, with grim figures leaving no doubt as to the reality of the situation we are in. 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced a reduction of the South Africa’s economic growth forecast for 2023 from 1.2% to 0.1%, largely because of the blackouts. In the same week, a report published by the African Energy Chamber (AEC) concluded that South Africa’s economy could have been 17% larger than it is today had the country not experienced loadshedding. A representative of the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) told a conference that load shedding has reduced the potential size of South Africa’s economy by almost a fifth. The Reserve Bank has estimated that power disruptions are costing the economy as much as R899 million a day, causing it to shave 2 percent off previous GDP predictions for 2023. 

I have held several discussions with the Egyptian companies at the center of Egypt’s remarkable turnaround,and there is keen interest, as well as the capacity, to advise South Africa how it can possibly prevail over a seemingly undefeatable monster. 

Our most immediate priority is to restore South Africa’senergy security. Many countries have deployed different solutions, with varying degrees of success, and often without the technological advancements of today. Our task is not to replicate any of these, but rather to consider all options, and in doing so, find a solution, or a combination of solutions, which best meets South Africa’s unique demands, which makes use of our natural resources, and which ultimately driven by our national interests. There is no question that a series of bold, decisive, and innovative measures are urgently required if we are to conquer this beast. 

Egypt may have an answer, let’s at least hear them out. This is after all what the African Renaissance is truly about. 

Ntsiki Mashimbye is the Ambassador of South Africa to Egypt. He writes in his personal capacity.