Train to Jozi

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa recently announced the the passenger train between Johannesburg and Cape Town is back in service after many years of unreliable and discontinued operations. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town I often took this train between semesters. I later published a brief photographic essay reflecting on the experience. Unfortunately the original version with photographs no longer exists (the archived version is here: so I decided to recreate it here.

The Shosholoza Meyl, once known as the Trans-Karoo Express, runs daily between Cape Town and Johannesburg (affectionately known as Jozi). The 26-hour journey begins at the bottom of the city bowl, departing from Platform 1.

Person in a sunbeam on the station platform
© Seán Muller

A pair of feet in black shoes with yellow laces on a yellow-lined station platform
© Seán Muller

Winding out of the station under the characteristic backdrop of Table Mountain to the east, the train meanders through peri-urban industria, graffitied walls, container yards and small factories.

Figures on a platform
© Seán Muller

Peri-urban industria: blue warehouses and graffitied walls
© Seán Muller

Exiting the outskirts of the city, it slips into the lush valleys that yield the fruit exports and vineyards for which the Cape is famous. Little children begging by the tracks suggest that the luxuriant scenery does not translate into prosperity for many. As with most of South Africa, the ever-present poverty is only blurred by familiarity.

By late afternoon the train is well into the vast scrublands of the Karoo. It is a meditative landscape; dotted hillocks and straggly sheep interspersed with the occasional farmhouse or windmill-powered dam.

Boy studying barefoot outside a house next to the train tracks
© Seán Muller

It can be too much for some passengers, who incline toward a palliative of alcohol-induced sleep. By late afternoon a blood red aspirin falls through the sky, leaving streaks of colour in its pale blue wake; eventually dissolving into the horizon. The sky bruises dark blue, purple and black, until the train is rushing brazenly into the darkness.

Dawn brings a rattle on the door offering tea in polystyrene cups—steaming hydraulics adding to the slightly magical light—and a gradual drift into the economic heartland of South Africa.

Steam from the hydraulics at dawn
© Seán Muller

In winter temperatures drop below freezing overnight; the days are clear; the veld and air sandpaper dry, bursting into flames with the slightest spark. The train tracks slither below the Nelson Mandela bridge, into the Jozi metro. As a gold mining boom town it was once dotted with mine dumps, but the best vantage points remain the koppies; the largest outcrops of the many granite ridges curling around various parts of the city.

People waiting at a station on the route into the city
© Seán Muller

Nelson Mandela Bridge
© Seán Muller

This is my home.

A view over Johannesburg towards Sandton City
© Seán Muller

And I feel the weight of Ivan Vladislavic’s words: “Are you still with me? In this dog-eared field, collapsing from one attitude to another, dragging your ghosts through the dirty air, your train of cast-off selves, constantly rediscovering yourself at the centre, in the present.”

An old shoe in the veld
© Seán Muller

A view across a koppie with a stone across towards the Jozi CBD
© Seán Muller

[Edited to add some additional photographs that were not published in the original essay]

Geopolitics of the energy transition: Part 2

Small but well-funded and vociferous groups of environmental activists and lawyers are blocking exploration for gas both offshore and onshore. They are also now objecting to the construction of gas-fired power stations and facilities to import gas. In neighbouring Mozambique, internal discontent is being exploited by external forces, delaying production at what has been described as a global game-changer for world gas markets.

One of my current areas of work is the energy transition in South Africa. In 2022 I co-authored two important pieces on this in the online publication New Frame. Unfortunately, New Frame has since shut down and those articles no longer appear in internet searches so I am republishing them here.

Note that the geopolitics of energy, and gas in particular, changed dramatically in some parts of the world after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with knock-on effects for the issues described below. We may incorporate those considerations into writing elsewhere.

Gas is a game-changer and the players are plotting

By: Mike Muller

By: Seán Mfundza Muller

Illustrator: Anastasya Eliseeva

22 Apr 2022

In the second of two articles on the energy transition, the battle for gas exploration in South Africa is explored – and why the production delays in Mozambique suit some interests.

Small but well-funded and vociferous groups of environmental activists and lawyers are blocking exploration for gas both offshore and onshore. They are also now objecting to the construction of gas-fired power stations and facilities to import gas. In neighbouring Mozambique, internal discontent is being exploited by external forces, delaying production at what has been described as a global game-changer for world gas markets.

Yet at last year’s COP26 climate change conference in Scotland, the global consensus was that gas will be a vital transitional fuel. And rich countries, along with their businesses, continue to implement projects that will use gas on their terms and for their profit.

Mozambique’s gas fields, offshore of Cabo Delgado province in the north, are among the most valuable in the region. Over a decade ago, it became apparent that the development of those deposits could transform Mozambique into a major global liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter. Properly managed, gas development could help transform Mozambique into a middle-income country. But it has also put it on the front line of global energy geopolitics. And this is reflected in the current insurgency and destabilisation in Cabo Delgado.

In January, a consortium led by Italian energy company Eni took delivery of Africa’s first floating gas plant, built in South Korea. Anchored off the coast of Cabo Delgado, it is due to start production later this year. However, the large onshore developments that would increase production eightfold are on hold owing to security concerns.  

The consortium led by French company Total, which had already begun to build its production facilities, has declared force majeure and halted work. The United States’ Exxon has delayed its “final investment decision” from 2021 to 2023. Further economic casualties of the conflict include gas-based opportunities for electricity generation and industrial development, including fertiliser production that could have supplied the whole Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

The security challenges that would be created by Mozambique’s gas reserves were already being discussed in 2010. Not long afterwards, the World Bank warned that the prospect of huge gas revenues might destabilise the whole region, a prediction that has come to pass in dramatic fashion. Corruption at the highest levels of Mozambique’s government left the country effectively insolvent, with former minister of finance Manuel Chang in a South African jail awaiting extradition to the US. The insurgency in Cabo Delgado has required security forces from SADC and beyond to stabilise.

Many roleplayers, many interests

Much attention has, correctly, focused on the domestic drivers of the conflict: inequality, a lack of opportunity and rampant and well-publicised gross corruption by the Mozambican elite. But external forces have also played a critical role. Blackwater, a notorious US security contractor, was seen as a leading contender for contracts to provide security in Cabo Delgado. 

Eni is working with China and South Korea’s oil companies, Portugal’s Galp Energia and Mozambique’s national hydrocarbon company ENH, which is a part of all the consortiums. But the full potential of their development will only be achieved when Exxon builds its onshore liquefaction facilities. Total’s consortium includes Asian gas users (Japan, India and Thailand) and is working with Exxon, which has proposed cooperation to reduce production costs for both consortia.

However, Exxon – and the US – have obvious conflicts of interest. Mozambique’s gas development could weaken the dominant position of the LNG market leaders Australia, Qatar and, increasingly, the US itself. Exxon has admitted that the Rovuma Basin discoveries in northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania “will be a game-changer for the world’s energy markets”.  

The importance of Mozambique to US energy policy is illustrated by American involvement being led personally by Rex Tillerson, in two separate roles: first as chief executive of Exxon Mobil and then as Donald Trump’s secretary of state. The efforts by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, to gain control of the maritime security opportunities are suggestive. So too is the fact that Mozambique’s loan scandal was driven, in large measure, by attempts to raise money to fund local companies to provide these services.  

To put it directly: has the insurgency provided Exxon with a useful excuse to delay the big onshore development that would dramatically expand Mozambique’s production, thereby conveniently protecting Exxon’s other production centres? Even if the Mozambican projects resume, full planned production will have been delayed by some years, keeping world market prices higher to the benefit of existing producers like Exxon. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the US will be the largest LNG exporter this year.

This perspective on Mozambique and the wider world of global hydrocarbons is relevant to South Africa, and the focus on gas is important.

Skewing the frame

Much of the climate and energy strategies – and legal fees – of South Africa’s non-governmental organisations and civil coalitions appear to be focused on opposing gas-related developments. Their simplistic and populist narrative frames the issues as a choice between apparently cheap and easy renewables or hydrocarbons. 

This superficially attractive approach ignores both the costs of replacing the national energy infrastructure and the limits of intermittent sources like wind and solar. And it assumes, without evidence, that a transition from coal-fired power to clean energy can be achieved without using gas.

Drawing on global consensus, the government’s 2019 integrated resource plan (IRP) considered some of the objections that had been formally submitted. It noted that “gas is considered a transition fuel globally and it provides the flexibility necessary to run a system like we have in a cost effective manner. It is cleaner than other fossil fuels. The extent of the gas contained in the draft IRP is within the imposed emissions reduction trajectory.”

Perhaps the problem is that, in energy planning terms, the IRP only provides a short-term perspective, until 2030, that does not reveal the challenge of managing a system with a large proportion of intermittent renewables like wind and solar.

The IRP 2030 scenario projections show that while 33% of the grid’s nameplate generating capacity – the maximum rated output – would come from wind and solar and 43% from coal, those renewables would only produce 24% of the system’s energy compared with coal’s 59%. Nuclear and hydropower would represent just 8.2% of generating capacity, but they produce almost 13% of the system’s energy because they offer consistent and predictable supply at high load factors.

The real challenge will be faced after 2030. As the proportion of intermittent renewables continues to grow, complementary sources of generation or storage must also be increased to compensate for periods in which solar and wind is not available. Complementary infrastructure will likely be more costly and take longer than the rollout of renewables, so delaying it will simply stall the transition.

A place for gas

Faced with this challenge, countries like Germany and Britain, leading advocates for zero carbon strategies, have committed to using gas for another two to three decades as a core element of their energy transition. This is despite their access to complementary sources of power, through Europe’s continent-wide grid to Norwegian hydropower, French nuclear and Danish wind, which will help them manage the intermittency of local wind and solar generation.

South Africa does not have such complementary sources. Critics’ comments recorded in the IRP show little evidence that they had any technically feasible alternatives, let alone suggestions on how to fund them. Proposals were limited to vague “flexible renewable generation” or “energy storage technologies” without suggesting what they would be or how they could be afforded.  

One representative from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research admitted in a radio interview that its proposals simply assumed that storage costs would come down enough over the next decade to make higher shares of renewable energy feasible. Even this is based on the assumption that storage is only needed for a few hours of generation and ignores the risk of the longer-term supply reductions already experienced in Europe and the US. At best, the suggested “all renewable” investment route would put South Africa’s energy security at risk in a way that no other sizeable country is doing.

There is presently no proposed solution that can reliably and affordably provide South Africa’s energy requirements purely from intermittent renewables. While storage technologies are progressing, the cost of long-term (multi-day) storage remains prohibitive. South Africa’s pumped storage schemes are currently among the cheapest technologies for large-scale energy storage, but an installation like Ingula, which can only store enough to generate 1 300MW for less than a day, cost R36 billion.

Costly delays

Important local work on energy storage and the production of “green hydrogen” from renewable energy could be supported since it may offer global opportunities for South African mining and manufacturing. But it will take many years to be brought to scale and deploy, not least because of the massive investment needed in dedicated wind and solar power and Sasol-size production plants. 

And, if “green hydrogen” eventually becomes commercially viable, it would best be used to generate electricity in the kinds of natural gas-fired generators that are now being blocked. In this respect, renewable power activism is leading South Africa off course right at the start of the transition marathon.

The latest example is the legal action opposing the construction of gas-fired power stations at Richards Bay and Durban that are to be fuelled by imported gas. But one reason for these developments is that gas exploration onshore and offshore has been repeatedly delayed. 

It is the failure to develop local gas resources that has allowed the much-criticised Karpowership “emergency” generation proposal to succeed. The ship will burn gas and it requires no local production or importation infrastructure, offering minimal local development benefits.

South Africans need to stop their dangerously narrow focus on one particular element, or definition, of the energy transition and think much more carefully about how to achieve a genuinely just and viable transition. 

The question also has to be asked: who benefits from the current rush to privatised forms of renewable energy, especially since it does not take seriously the interests either of workers and the impoverished in general or economic viability and national sovereignty? 

Seán Muller does not receive any funding, or have any other conflicts of interest, related to the subject of this article.

Mike Muller’s pension is invested in, among others, renewable and conventional energy and construction companies.

First published by New Frame.

Geopolitics of the energy transition: Part 1

At present, groups with strong vested interests are encouraging South Africa to make a fast and radical transition without explaining how the costs incurred in doing so will be paid and by whom. Worse, they want the country to do this in a way that would reduce the income it could earn to fund the transition.

One of my current areas of work is the energy transition in South Africa. In 2022 I co-authored two important pieces on this in the online publication New Frame. Unfortunately, New Frame has since shut down and those articles no longer appear in internet searches so I am republishing them here.

Who gets the ‘dirty’ profits while going for ‘clean’?

21 Apr 2022

In the first of two articles on the energy transition that must happen across the world, it’s clear that coal will be around for years to come. Less clear is who will benefit from it.

Current proposals for an energy transition in South Africa are wholly inadequate. The energy transition is a marathon that will be run for at least three decades and it needs a well-considered strategy to complete successfully. 

Countries that try to sprint from the start are likely to fall by the wayside. Yet the popular narrative promoted in South Africa doesn’t move beyond the cheap populism that simply asserts that Eskom and fossil fuel-based energy production are evils that need to be got rid of at the greatest possible speed.

The world must undoubtedly transition to a new energy system, but it will be a hugely complex and costly project. To make a successful transition, each country – and community – will have to address its specific challenges. 

For a country as unequal as South Africa, a primary concern will be to ensure a genuinely “just transition”. It should not impose unreasonable burdens on ordinary South Africans, particularly workers and the impoverished, through retrenchments, extra taxes, unreasonable energy price hikes or reduced public services. The transition strategy must consider the implications for public finances, therefore, and it must also consider the implications for national sovereignty and stability.

At present, groups with strong vested interests are encouraging South Africa to make a fast and radical transition without explaining how the costs incurred in doing so will be paid and by whom. Worse, they want the country to do this in a way that would reduce the income it could earn to fund the transition.

The current model for transition to green energy is through rapid privatisation. It amounts to a form of self-imposed structural adjustment that threatens to repeat the economic policy mistakes of the 1990s. These collapsed the manufacturing sector of the economy and closed many paths to a more inclusive and prosperous society.

Weaker and more dependent

Meanwhile, the wildly overhyped promised external support for a just transition in South Africa is limited. Close inspection of the “green financing” deal for the country, announced with much fanfare at the COP26 climate change conference held in Scotland in November last year, reveals unfavourable terms and little real financial support. 

Populist campaigns that push for the swiftest possible transition to privatised forms of green energy production are likely to contribute to turning an already difficult transition into a brutal one. Instead of ensuring that South Africa can design, fuel and fund its transition primarily from domestic resources, it will become even more dependent on energy imports and conditional external funding. 

This will reduce its ability to negotiate trade and finance deals, including for renewable energy investments, further undermining its economic sovereignty. It will weaken public finances and reduce the resources needed to address poverty and inequality in a sustainable way. And history shows that weakened sovereignty on these fronts can weaken political sovereignty as well.

While many domestic commentators like to frame South Africa as some kind of energy pariah, this does not hold up against a global perspective. Globally, South Africa is being outplayed by more powerful nations who seek to maximise their returns from their hydrocarbon resources while they still can.

Take Australia. Back in 1981, its national intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, warned then-prime minister Malcolm Fraser that by the middle of the 21st century, CO₂ emissions would cause climatic change that “would require major economic and social adjustments”.

The primary concern for Australia was not climate change. It was rather the “potentially adverse implication … for the security of Australia’s export markets for coal”. The country’s response was simple and is now a matter of public record. It ramped up coal production to maximise its carbon income before the fateful day arrived. It also encouraged the exploitation of its offshore gas fields. So today Australia is not only the world’s largest coal exporter, but also the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) – although in total gas exports (LNG and pipeline) it is only fifth in the world.

Making hay while sun still shines

Other rich countries are following similar strategies to Australia’s. Canada has a relatively low-carbon domestic electricity system, thanks to extensive hydropower and nuclear generating capacity. But despite local opposition, Canada continues to exploit its huge reserves of dramatically dirty “tar sands” despite the extreme environmental and social damage. The aim is to produce oil for export, maximising its hydrocarbon income while it still can.

Canada’s big neighbour, the United States, is even more aggressive. In the 1970s, the US produced much of its electricity from local coal. For transport fuels, however, it depended  on oil imports from cheap but politically unstable, or destabilised, Middle East countries. 

Like Canada, the US has huge, potentially valuable reserves of gas and oil in shale rocks that are difficult to tap. Fracking technologies, developed with support from the government, have solved the technical problems and transformed the country’s energy sector. Expanded gas supplies are replacing coal for electricity generation, enabling a significant reduction in CO₂ emissions. This has turned the US into a net exporter, with both the Trump and Biden administrations aggressively promoting LNG exports.

As energy prices fluctuate dramatically worldwide, providing transitional solutions – dirty old coal – remains a highly profitable business. AGL Energy, which is responsible for 8% of Australia’s CO₂ emissions, rejected a bid from US private equity company Brookfield saying it was well below fair value. AGL Energy intends to continue using coal until 2045, which will help it to build a renewables business.  

In South Africa, the future value of a few decades of coal-fired business was demonstrated when Anglo American sold its local coal business to Thungela Resources, a black economic empowerment company, in June last year. Thungela’s share price has since gone up over 600%, with most of that rise happening even before the Ukraine crisis.

The importance of local mining production for public finances was demonstrated by the tax windfall from higher commodity prices that helped to relieve the post-Covid fiscal shock, just as it boosted public finances before the global financial crisis of 2007.

Worsening inequity

So whether one likes it or not, profits will continue to be made from fossil fuels during the energy transition. The question now is who will capture those profits and for whose benefit will they be used? A just transition would see the transitional profits go to the more impoverished countries that bear the heaviest burdens. That’s not currently happening and, if anything, the present trajectory suggests the inequity will worsen.

As Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, put it earlier in March, developing countries need “a way to finance our route to net zero”. And if the wealthy nations that “caused the problems” would not provide funding, these countries would need to find other ways to generate revenue, such as exporting fossil fuels. “There has to be equity,” she told a Financial Times climate conference. 

Historically, wealthy countries have been reluctant to really pay their share. In 2007, the then Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa proposed that wealthy countries pay Ecuador not to drill for oil in an Amazon rainforest reserve. In other words, he wanted them to compensate Ecuadoreans for the national revenue they would lose by keeping oil in the ground. Of the $3.6 billion proposed, only $13 million was forthcoming and the oil drilling in the Amazon went ahead. 

The question that motivated Correa was simple: why should poor countries sacrifice much-needed revenues from exploiting natural resources when rich countries that can better afford this sacrifice are often not doing so? This same question can be applied in South Africa and beyond to other Southern African Development Community countries that have strong incentives to “monetise” their hydrocarbon reserves to help fund the building of their domestic power systems and economies. 

The stated aim of virtually all campaigns in South Africa at present is to achieve a “just transition”. But analysis of South Africa’s options, supported by evidence from the rest of the world, suggests that their effect is more likely to impose an unnecessarily brutal transition on the majority of South Africans and a loss of energy and political sovereignty.

Séan Muller does not receive any funding, or have any other conflicts of interest, related to the subject of this article.

Mike Muller’s pension is invested in, among others, renewable and conventional energy and construction companies.

This article was first published by New Frame.

Comments on South Africa’s medium-term budget policy statement (and related matters)

Front-page of the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement

The Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement was tabled on the 1st of November alongside the documents for the ‘adjusted Budget’. Here is my first op-ed on those proposals. I will post the videos from media interviews and oral submissions to Parliament separately.

South Africa’s medium-term budget reflects difficult and contested decisions

Seán Mfundza Muller, University of Johannesburg

The medium-term budget policy statement presented by South Africa’s finance minister, Enoch Godongwana, to parliament on 1 November 2023 is intended to provide a preview of government’s public finance plans over the next three years. It does not actually commit government to anything, either in law or in practice. Nevertheless, it is a crucial document because it presents what the National Treasury intends to be the broad, financial foundation for the functioning of national, provincial and local governments in the near future.

This year’s statement is particularly important for two reasons. The first is that South Africa’s fiscal situation is arguably at its worst in the post-apartheid era. The second is that any decisions taken, especially about the 2024/25 fiscal year, could affect how South Africans view the current government when voting in next year’s elections.

The crucial background to this year’s statement is that South Africa’s national debt levels relative to the size of the economy have increased substantially since 2008. The statement emphasises that the increase was approximately 47 percentage points from 2008. The three main reasons are the global financial crisis that started in 2007, continued slow economic growth partly as a result of state capture and power outages, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional reasons include lower tax collection, other major expenditure increases such as the “free higher education” policy announced unexpectedly at the end of 2017, and large transfers to the state-owned power utility Eskom in response to its worsening financial position.

As things stand, national debt is expected to reach almost 75% of GDP by next year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic such levels would have been considered unsustainable by many economists and international financial institutions. The sustainability of national debt – how much a country can borrow without leading to a crisis later – drives a lot of thinking about country’s public finances.

But it’s not a science. What was almost unthinkable about debt levels before the COVID-19 pandemic has now become almost normal. Many countries have experienced large increases in their overall debt levels and the resultant debt service costs.

Some so-called radical economists claim that there are few limits on government expenditure. But this is, unfortunately, a luxury that may only be true for much wealthier countries with greater economic and political power – like the US.

On the other side of the spectrum, recent scaremongering statements that the country could “run out of cash” are absurd and misleading.

The question for South Africa is what to do about high and growing levels of debt. A sustainable debt path isn’t just about reducing debt to a particular level. The process of how it’s done is also crucial. Cutting spending in a way that creates social harm and reduces economic growth is self-defeating. Raising taxes too much can also be counter-productive. But letting debt rise indefinitely will mean borrowing costs become impossible to meet without dramatic spending or taxation measures.

The result inevitably involves difficult trade-offs. But because these are contested, within government and by different interest groups, the consequences and details are often concealed or given a misleading spin.

The devil in the detail

A few examples from this year’s statement illustrate this – and the divisions within government itself.

The first is the issue of government spending on salaries.

In the past the National Treasury and some economists have sought to suggest that this kind of spending is inherently “unproductive”. In reality, even from a narrow economic perspective, that is incorrect. Such spending funds the work of teachers who are responsible for educating future generations, nurses whose job includes keeping people in the labour market healthy and alive, and police officers whose presence should contribute to keeping crime in check.

For many years there has been an arm-wrestling match between the treasury and other parts of government responsible for determining public sector wage agreements. The way this has been “resolved” is by the treasury budgeting for the wage increases it believes are appropriate, the other parts of government agreeing to higher wage agreements, and the treasury then forcing departments to cut the total number of employees in order to keep total wage costs down.

Although the treasury accompanies its stance by promising that “essential” or “labour intensive” departments and sectors will be protected, it has never provided any detailed information to actually show that is happening. The consequence is a form of “austerity by stealth” in relation to staff available to provide public services.

The much better solution would have been for a social compact on wage increases and public sector employment. That would require compromise from the treasury but also public sector trade unions. Unable to reach that kind of mature solution, the arm-wrestling continues every year with the general public being the losers.

This year the treasury budgeted for an increase of less than 2% but the actual outcome was 7.5%. Some of this will be covered by funds taken from other important expenditure items, while the rest will come from cutting public sector posts.

A seemingly positive development is that the statement now makes provision for a continuation of the Social Relief of Distress Grant that was introduced during COVID-19. This is one of the only sources of support to millions of South Africans who are unable to find employment.

The 2023 budget made no provision for the continuation of the grant: the treasury planned to end it in March 2024, immediately before the 2024 elections. Earlier this year I argued to Parliament that such a decision would be inequitable and could also unduly influence electoral outcomes.

While it seems sense has prevailed with treasury now planning more than R50 billion ($2.65bn) for such spending over the next two years, it remains to be seen what is proposed in the 2024 budget.

Another example relates to crucial public employment programmes. In a recent speech the president cited his Presidential Employment Initiative as a major success – although without providing any detailed evidence. The treasury proposes to extend this to 2024/25, which seems like a good thing. But it plans to do so by cannibalising funds for other public employment schemes like the Expanded Public Works Programme and Community Works Programme: arguably a case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. And it seems intent on continuing the costly and ineffective Employment Tax Incentive.

Lastly, there is the thorny issue of taxes. The major cause of an increase in national debt levels this year is a shortfall in taxation revenue of almost R60 billion ($3.2bn). Only if you read the detail in the medium term budget statement does it turn out that a large part of this is due to private sector investment in decentralised renewable energy generation capacity. This isn’t fully explained, but is likely to be due to value added tax refunds linked to tax incentives introduced in the 2023 budget. In other words: it is the result of a policy proposed by the treasury itself.

Watch this space

While the minister and the treasury have provided an indication of current thinking, the crucial details and commitments of government’s fiscal plans will only be clear when the budget itself is tabled next year. And those will only be cemented when approved by Parliament.

Some political parties have suggested that the 2024 election may be the most important one since 1994: the same is arguably true of the 2024 budget.The Conversation

Seán Mfundza Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What is really happening with Israel-Palestine?

The current Israel-Palestine situation is unprecedented, but in ways that go far beyond what has been explicitly recognised.

The attack by Hamas was unprecedented in its scale and scope: everyone seems to agree on that. Some have gone further and asked how it was possible for Israeli intelligence agencies – amongst the most sophisticated in the world – to have missed the incoming threat. Subsequent reports add to that scepticism, revealing that Egypt and the United States warned Israel of a major threat shortly before the attack took place. Yet for some reason it appears the warning was ignored.

I would argue that the even more unprecedented occurrences relate to commentary and media coverage. I noticed a number of individuals on social media with large followings suddenly start expressing solidarity with Palestinians immediately in the aftermath of the Hamas attack. It seems very strange to wait for hundreds of civilians in Israel to be massacred before making political statements in favour of Palestinians. Why would such voices suddenly become loud when they were absent or quiet when Amnesty International found Israel to be practising apartheid? Or when Palestinians were being killed or brutalised without retaliation?

Related to this has been the reaction of mainstream media outlets which in the past, for decades, systematically downplayed human rights violations by the Israeli state. Immediately after the attack many of these outlets invited critical commentators who showed up the one-sidedness of the coverage of those same outlets. And this happened across numerous, notionally independent broadcasters. Unprecedented.

Moreover, these shifts occurred in a context where the political ground was already shifting against Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s warmongering prime minister. A broad range of groups inside and outside Israel had opposed Netanyahu’s attempt to centralise power and reduce the power of Israel’s judiciary. In recent months even a former head of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, asserted that Israel had been practising apartheid. And shortly after the Hamas attack articles, and even viral manipulated videos, were published suggesting that Netanyahu should step down.

The more crucial geopolitical context is this: the United States has been securing strategic agreements with Arab states in the Middle East. It has cemented ties with the dictatorships in Saudia Arabia and Egypt, despite systematic human rights violations in both countries. In parallel it has established a strong alliance with India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, secured a tenuous alliance with Pakistan after the removal of Imraan Khan, and cemented ties with another de facto dictator, Recep Erdogan, in Turkey. The result is that the United States no longer needs Israel as an isolated imperial outpost or bulwark in the Middle East. In fact, the ongoing Israeli repression of Palestinians impedes the ability of the USA to cement ties with its new allies for as long as it is backing Israel militarily. This, I suggest, is the primary geopolitical undercurrent that will determine the direction of current events and is already influencing media coverage and the flip-flopping of the European Union and pro-Israel politicians like the UK’s Keir Starmer.

In some respects these events mirror what happened with apartheid in South Africa when the Soviet Union collapsed. The United States no longer needed apartheid South Africa as a bulwark against what it claimed to be a communist threat in Africa. Shortly thereafter the hardline apartheid prime minister PW Botha fell from favour and was replaced by FW De Klerk, who despite having been active in supporting and enforcing apartheid positioned himself as a reformer. The United States and its key allies, like the UK, backed De Klerk’s move to end apartheid and the rest, as they say, is history.

Such brazen manipulation of this kind is of course reprehensible: supporting apartheid, a crime against humanity, for decades and then discarding it only after its usefulness has waned. Nevertheless, in the current Israel-Palestine situation it may mean that an actual peace deal is now possible.

As in the South African case the terms of any such agreement matter a great deal. And the deeply entrenched support for apartheid in Israel-Palestine should not be underestimated; right-wing and conservative groupings may yet try to use the situation to extend the borders of Israel and further worsen the living conditions of Palestinians. But if my hypothesis that the United States is covertly backing a move towards peace is correct, simply to support its own geopolitical strategy, then it is difficult to see how hardliners in Israel will hold out when their main financier, weapons supplier and supporter pushes in a different direction.

It is no cause for celebration that the United States is allying with powerful dictatorships as it moves to seek war with China, and perhaps a more intense proxy war with Iran alongside the proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, but for the Palestinian people this may yet bring them the peace and security that is owed to them.

News24’s hypocrisy and failure on Israel-Palestine

Not only did News24 completely ignore the Amnesty International report but it even went to the extent of taking down an article on the Israel-Palestine issue that it had accidentally syndicated in which South Africa’s foreign minister called for Israel to be declared an apartheid state.

The recent escalation in violence in Israel-Palestine has been met with a flood of reactions in traditional and social media. In both instances these reveal a shift in responses to this long-running issue. One thing that has struck me the most is that people and organisations who once ignored or were hostile to those who called Israel ‘an apartheid state’, even after a credible Amnesty International report came to that conclusion, have suddenly discovered that this actually has some legitimacy.

It is particularly strange that they should do so in a time of violence in which Israeli civilians have been killed in large numbers. Why would it be that certain people and organisations suddenly conclude that the oppression of Palestinians is bad in a moment when the first victims of violence were Israelis? Where was this sentiment when Palestinians were being killed and brutalised on a regular basis by the Israel military?

I will write a separate piece about what I think lies behind the current dynamics but here I just want to share some letters I exchanged with the editors of, and Ombud for, News24. According to media surveys, News24 is South Africa’s most-read online news source and supposedly ‘the most trusted’ source of news in South Africa. Not only did News24 completely ignore the Amnesty International report but it even went to the extent of taking down an article on the Israel-Palestine issue that it had accidentally syndicated in which South Africa’s foreign minister called for Israel to be declared an apartheid state. This provides important context for the sudden about-face by at least one of its editors, who was copied on some of that correspondence.

Interestingly, after my complaint News24 started publishing more pieces on the Israel-Palestine situation but continued in its failure to report on Amnesty International and other formal calls for Israel to be declared an apartheid state.

Only in recent months (in 2023) has there been a more substantial shift. But a striking pattern is that – after years of omission and one-sided reporting – News24 only acknowledge the apartheid analogy when it is made by individuals who previously had been active in denying the validity of the comparison (such as this article which cites Benjamin Pogrund), or actively involved in enforcing apartheid in Israel-Palestine (such as this article on remarks by a former Mossad commander). News24 syndicated this piece by Pogrund in August 2023. It is notable from the URL that it did so under the heading of its Ombud/public editor (George Claassen) who previously dismissed my concerns as unsubstantiated.

In short, the recent shift in News24’s reporting conceals a systematic and deliberate bias that denied the oppressive nature of the Israeli state across decades – much as certain media houses during apartheid played a key role in propping up successive apartheid governments by denying that what they were doing was wrong. While the shift here and internationally may well be desirable, those who were complicit should not be allowed to whitewash their histories. (For my expression of similar concerns about apartheid propagandists see this letter to Business Day).

Complaint to News24 on coverage of Israel-Palestine

The initial concern that I raised with News24’s Ombudsman in February 2022 was that News24 had failed to publish a single article on the Amnesty International report:

The Ombud referred this to the editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson. After no reply, I followed-up a month later noting also the strange disjuncture between News24’s reporting on Ukraine compared to the Israel-Palestine situation:

I then received the following reply in which one of the editors sought to paint the non-reporting as merely an ‘oversight’. This is clearly not credible given how many News24 articles concern trivial topics and, more importantly, how consistent its reporting had been in favour of the Israeli state. The links provided are to opinion pieces or/and pieces in other publications. One of the only substantive pieces was published after my letter of concern had been sent to the editor.

There was an interesting increase in News24 articles on the broader issue after this exchange, but those continued to have a strong slant and the only mention

I was reminded of the issue later in the year when News24 briefly syndicated an article on South Africa’s foreign minister calling for Israel to be declared an apartheid state and then deleted it. The evidence of the deletion is still available online:

Here is my follow-up email:

The combination of these two issues is damning: News24 systematically failed to publish any news article on the Amnesty International report that declared Israel to be an apartheid state; News24 censored a story that it had syndicated in which South Africa’s foreign minister called for Israel to be formally declared an apartheid state, and published no article of its own on that major news item.

Despite this evidence, the public editor George Claassen immediately responded claiming that “your accusation of bias, that is a rather harsh accusation without any evidence”. At which point it became evident to me that News24’s internal accountability mechanisms were toothless and themselves hopelessly biased.

Having referred my concern to editors to response and expressed his own opinion without engaging with the substance, the Ombud then nevertheless took it upon himself to provide the response (see below).

In this response he seeks to manufacture an excuse for removing the story about South Africa’s foreign minister calling for Israel to be declared an apartheid state. The absurdity of the explanation – that the story was taken down as “a precautionary measure by the night editor to ensure that the journalist interpreted the news conference by Minister Naledi Pandor correctly” – is evident from the fact that News24 did not subsequently publish a ‘correct’ story of its own.

Similarly, the vast majority of the stories he lists were published after my initial complaint, or were opinion pieces, or where from other publication.

Since it seemed obvious that the Ombud had pre-emptively decided to defend News24’s conduct and create a justification for that decision after the fact, I did waste my time further by replying to their last email.

The public record, and this correspondence, serves as evidence of what I suggest is News24’s wilful and grossly hypocritical bias that renders it complicit in misrepresentations that serve as an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine situation.

The Many Faces of Eusebius McKaiser

Thirteen years ago I resolved to write a very critical article about Eusebius McKaiser.

The political persona he was constructing in South Africa was very different, almost opposite, to the one of the Eusebius McKaiser I had encountered in Oxford in the United Kingdom where we were both studying. In Oxford, McKaiser publicly and loudly endorsed the invitation (platforming) of an actual fascist, the leader of the ‘British National Party’, to the debating club known as the Oxford Union. In doing so he also leveraged his racial identity to bolster a weak argument, while conveniently ignoring the fact that his extreme privileges (a Rhodes Scholar in the University of Oxford community) would likely protect him from the consequences – unlike working class black and ‘brown’ people in the vicinity.

Yet when I returned to South Africa a few years later I discovered that McKaiser had reinvented himself as a supposed radical anti-racist. This, it later turned out, was after a stint at McKinsey where he had found himself just another smart, overly ambitious, highly self-regarding individual in a corporate machine filled with such characters. (Some of whom would later go on to happily take consulting money to undermine the country’s democracy). He had political aspirations but his most obvious political home, the Democratic Alliance, did not embrace him with open arms the way some of his Rhodes Scholar peers parachuted into political positions in their home countries. Facing these obstacles but determined to be ‘famous’, happy to leverage any and all cronyistic networks at his disposal, or that he could create, he chose the identity that seemed most likely to serve his agenda. On a rare occasion one public commentator referred to the relationship between McKaiser and journalist Karima Brown as ‘generally corrupt’; a gesture at what was arguably the tip of an iceberg.

Well, in fact McKaiser chose to don multiple faces, depending on the audience. And this, I would suggest, is what explains the apparent paradox that McKaiser had many white friends who I will politely call ‘not-antiracist’, whose patronage he benefitted from extensively while at the same time social media reactions are revealing that many other white South Africans think he hated white people. Among McKaiser’s white conservative-leaning patrons was Peter Bruce. Bruce apparently helped secure McKaiser a column at Business Day when he was starting out on his path to fame. Whatever McKaiser may have ‘deserved’ in return for his abilities, I suspect an objective analysis would find that patronage networks of various kinds lay behind a great deal of what he did. Unfortunately, because he was almost never challenged on it, he never explained how that was consistent with the loudly principled positions he took about the conduct of others.

Back to 2010. I mentioned the intention to write the article to a mutual friend who pleaded with me not to do it. And I didn’t. Many times over the years I regretted that decision as I watched McKaiser behave disingenuously again and again, while honing the art of his disingenuousness more and more. On the occasions where I seriously considered remedying my mistake there was usually one of McKaiser’s friends in my ear saying that I should not write it. Not being short of other things to do, I repeatedly put it aside. McKaiser himself, having caught wind of my low opinion of him, reached out to me three times – always through intermediaries. One of these times was supposedly because he wanted me on his show to discuss economics and economic policy. Using his platforms to soften critics and generate arrangements of mutual benefit – known as cronyism in other contexts – appeared to be one of his specialties and a number of tributes reflect the success of that strategy.

The first two times I said I was happy to engage but we would need to have a frank discussion about why I held such a negative view of him. I was unsurprised when he did not follow up. The third time I was also asked if I could explain to the intermediary what my concerns were: I declined because I had learned from experiences with other Eusebius-type personalities that telling them your concerns just allowed them to change their performances to be less vulnerable to criticisms in future without actually addressing the substance of the issues. I had no intention of helping McKaiser polish his act further.

The irony of these friends, and McKaiser himself, trying to discourage criticism of a man who had built, and would go on to build, an entire public profile and career on criticising other public figures appears to have been lost on those involved. But then one thing that characterises a number of circles McKaiser moved in, or created, was a double-standard that is so deeply held there was no sense it even needed to be justified. He was not alone in that practice and appears to have done a remarkable job of finding fellow travellers. A major reason why McKaiser sought to control the mic is because it meant he could avoid situations where he might be too exposed. Debating skills help you win an argument for a position you might not believe in, in 5 minutes: but if it goes on longer than that you could be in trouble. So it helps to have control over who gets to talk, how long for, about what, and then get the last word. Contrary to the narrative that McKaiser was a fearless debater, my observation over more than a decade is that he went out of his way to make sure he was never on a neutral platform with someone more intelligent or insightful who disagreed with him and wasn’t within one of his networks.

With McKaiser’s tragically premature death, my concerns about what I consider to be his disingenuous, even manipulative, public performances have been reignited. Yet I have still been reluctant to write about someone who is now deceased, and of course cannot reply. McKaiser and I also shared many friends and acquaintances. But the gushing tributes from highly influential figures and publications have helped to dissolve my concern about this. If McKaiser was indeed a ‘giant’ who ‘fundamentally contributed to the public narrative’ in South Africa, if he was the country’s ‘foremost public intellectual’, then he is clearly an important public figure who should be exposed to the same kind of frank assessment as those he himself excoriated.

So much for the preamble, then: more to follow.

Eskom, electricity and energy in South Africa

Over the years I have ended-up doing a fair amount of work and commentary on the state-owned power utility Eskom and associated energy policy issues in South Africa, including recently with my collaborator Mike Muller. The intention of this page is to put all these contributions in one place. Loadshedding (power outages) and the broader state of electricity and energy are now arguably the most pressing policy issue in the country, exceeding even the severe state of unemployment.

The contributions are ordered from most recent to oldest and range from television interviews to some detailed pieces of policy research. (There will likely be some interviews missing initially but I will add these as I remember or come across them).

Interview with Newzroom Afrika on the announcements in the 2023 Budget pertaining to Eskom and the departure of the CEO Andre De Ruyter:

Interview with Newzroom Afrika on crisis consultations in January 2023:

Interview with Newzroom Afrika in September 2022 on the new Eskom board, including concerns about conflicts of interest among some board members as well as more broadly in the energy policy space:

Interview with the SABC in September 2022 on the energy crisis in South Africa:

Slides from a presentation at the TIPS Annual Forum:

Video of the TIPS Forum presentation is here (00:02:30-00:20:30, and for Q&A from 01:06:20):

Interview with Newzroom Afrika in August 2022 on proposed higher electricity connection fees: (builds on article below)

Article for The Conversation in August 2022 arguing that higher electricity connection fees are actually a good thing because they make the wealthy pay more of their share and reduce/combat the utility ‘death spiral’: (we noted the need for such fees in a previous article – see below)

Two co-authored op-eds on geopolitics of the energy transition, reproduced here:

Geopolitics of the energy transition: Part 1

Geopolitics of the energy transition: Part 2

Proposed/claimed solutions to the electricity crisis would not work: (written in 2020 and the evidence since then supports these arguments)

Article for The Conversation in March 2019 explaining why the restructuring of Eskom would not resolve the loadshedding problem and could even make it worse:

Briefing (and accompanying slides) for the Parliament of South Africa on proposed special fiscal transfers to Eskom:

Lengthy and detailed report for the Parliament of South Africa in 2015 on the financing of state-owned enterprises:

A collation of my work and writing on randomised control trials (RCTs)

The single topic that I have written on most extensively to date is the use of randomised control trials (RCTs) in economics to identify causal effects, generalise those findings and make policy claims. Much of this was done before this approach was awarded the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics: I started work on RCTs in 2010 for my PhD in economics.

The purpose of this page is to collate links to all of that work in one place. I have ordered the publications based on how some interested readers might want to go through them (which is why the link to my 200+ page PhD thesis comes at the end!).

Some of the academic articles are, unfortunately, gated – I put 🔐 symbols next to those. Feel free to contact me if you’d like a copy of any of them.

The 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics was awarded to three scholars for the methodological approach that has been the focus of critique in my work. In a short paper in a special issue of the journal World Development on the 2019 Nobel, The implications of a fundamental contradiction in advocating randomized trials for policy” (🔐), I aim to provide a succinct version of my argument against that ‘randomista’ approach.

Two articles with co-authors (Grieve Chelwa and Nimi Hoffmann) in The Conversation aimed at a more general audience also respond to the 2019 Nobel award. The first, How randomised trials became big in development economics, provides some background. The second, Randomised trials in economics: what the critics have to say, explains some of the criticisms – including my own.

In a special issue of the CODESRIA Bulletin on Randomised Control Trials and Development Research in Africa, I argue that RCTs are “A Dead-End for African Development”. In other words, I argue that the likely outcome of the emphasis on such methods will be to retard development – in sharp contrast to what proponents claim.

One example I discuss in that working paper is the use of RCTs in the context of education policy debates in South Africa. In a seminar given as a visiting fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, “The new colonial missionaries: basic education policy and randomised trials in South Africa”, I explain how academics with a ‘missionary zeal’ (Bardhan) have sought, with some success, to inappropriately dominate basic education policy debates in South Africa. (I also wrote a fairly lengthy blog post on related matters in 2016, “Some thoughts on Taylor and Watson’s (2015) RCT on the impact of study guides on school-leaving results in South Africa”).

The crux of the formal (technical/econometric) argument I have made against the ‘randomista’ use of randomised trials in economics and for public policy was published well before the Nobel was awarded, in an article in the World Bank Economic Review, Causal Interaction and External Validity: Obstacles to the Policy Relevance of Randomized Evaluations”.

Some of the limitations of using RCTs for policy, and insisting on them as the only truly credible basis for decision-making, have been revealed during the Covid-19 pandemic. I wrote a short paper on that for a special issue of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Masks, mechanisms and Covid-19: the limitations of randomized trials in pandemic policymaking”.

The misuse of an RCT to distort a public policy process in a manner that facilitated private sector rent-seeking – rather than the policy objective of reducing youth unemployment – was the focus of my detailed analysis of South Africa’s ‘Youth Employment Tax Incentive’ (YETI) published in Development and Change, Evidence for a YETI? A Cautionary Tale from South Africa’s Youth Employment Tax Incentive (🔐).

In a recent chapter in the Edward Elgar compilation A Modern Guide to Philosophy of Economics, Randomised trials in economics(🔐), I provide my most detailed assessment of these issues. A notable additional contribution of this chapter is that it examines the strategies advocates of these methods are using in an attempt to counter criticisms and explains why those are unconvincing and cannot succeed.

In another chapter forthcoming in the Routledge volume The Positive and the Normative in Economic Thought, The Unacknowledged Normative Content of Randomised Control Trials in Economics and Its Dangers(🔐), I explain how normative factors (biases, prejudices, ideologies, etc) enter a process that is typically represented as ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ and ‘neutral’. This develops a point I alluded to in earlier work.

All of this work began with the research conducted for my PhD in economics, “The external validity of treatment effects: an investigation of educational production”, which I started at the beginning of 2010 and completed in 2014 – under the supervision of Martin Wittenberg, examined by Gary Solon, Jeff Smith and Steve Koch.

Causal inference, alcohol bans and Covid-19 in South Africa: a short comment

As in other countries, South Africa has used various forms of restrictions on societal activity in an attempt to slow or prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (‘Covid’). One measure that is relatively unusual is the limit on alcohol sales, which has varied in severity from a complete ban on any sales or transporting of alcohol to less severe variations on that such as banning only sales for off-site consumption, or limiting such sales to particular days and hours.

Such measures have drawn some vehement criticism, not least from the alcohol industry itself. One large player in that industry, Distell, commissioned a piece of research which argued that there was no defensible basis for these measures. That in turn was widely cited in the media, and at least one editor claimed that it showed: “There’s no way the alcohol bans in SA have been based on credible science. They’re based on prejudice.”

In the same month (April 2021) I was contacted by a civil society organisation for an expert opinion on that report. I wrote a short assessment, which takes a dim view of the approach and claims of the report – with corresponding implications for associated assertions that use it as a ‘scientific’ basis for opposing alcohol restrictions.


As I indicate in my comments, this is ultimately an empirical question on which I have no prior views. The claim that a reduction in access to alcohol does significantly reduce the demand for hospital resources that are needed for critical Covid-19 cases is plausible. Whether it is true remains to be seen. A number of papers have been published on the subject, see:

I leave thoughts on those, and others which are likely to be out soon, for later work.

On the issue of economic impact, which the alcohol industry emphasises, there are certainly also concerns. However, it is useful to remember that industry estimates of economic harm from limiting their activities are often exaggerations of the net economic impact. Reductions in consumption also have a significant negative impact on government revenue from excise duties, though these are arguably quite small when compared to the broader economic and fiscal harm of ‘lockdown’ measures.

Elsewhere I have outlined in detail my views on the balancing act required of decision-makers, especially for less wealthy countries, in dealing with the pandemic. I argued that contrary to the conventional wisdom in 2020, South Africa’s response was deeply flawed and caused social and economic harm without adequate benefits in terms of long-term health outcomes. That remains my view, but it does not follow that every decision is flawed: in my assessment, the restrictions on alcohol sales/consumption, even if unnecessary or ineffective, are amongst the least of the government’s failures.