Thursday, July 2, 2020

Towards an African Energy Doctrine and alternative sources of electricity

In 1960 Senegalese scholar, Pan Africanist and Nuclear Physicist, Dr Cheikh Anta Diop outlined his ideas on establishing a federal system for all African countries similar to a common market and the industrialisation of Africa.

One does not hear in the current crop of leaders the urgency with which Diop and earlier Pan Africanists like Robert Sobukwe and Kwame Nkrumah spoke about the unity of Africa. Diop wrote that Africa’s main security and development problems can be solved only on a continental scale and preferably within a federal framework. At that time, sixty years ago, Diop raised alarm about how fast our continent can have its nonrenewable treasures sucked away while we nap.

He asked, “What is the meaning of rights granted under the Law of the Sea to such tiny land-locked or semi-arid states as Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Niger, Chad, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) or Central African Empire (Republic)? Within two generations, a good share of the customary materials indispensable to our daily lives (including iron, aluminium, copper, uranium, zinc, manganese and cobalt) will have completely disappeared from land areas. Suitable technical equipment will be required to extract them from ocean bottoms exceeding two thousand metres… An African Kuwait, such as Gabon, in less than sixty years will be an empty shell.

“Enlightened self-interest itself argues for the adoption, before it is too late, of a federal system. Belgian-American interests, preparing for the political instability that would prevail in the colonies following World War 11, working at maximum rates and beyond, mined all the uranium of the Belgian Congo in less than ten years and stockpiled it at Oolen in Belgium”.

South Africans or Azanians, for those who prefer the latter name, can identify with what Diop said sixty years ago. Many mines in this country are closed down because minerals such as gold are depleted, what is left are empty shells and mine dumps. Mining towns where gold was mined are now ghost towns. South African gold is stockpiled in Western capitals. The proceeds of the gold and other minerals were not ploughed back into the country through industrialisation and education.

The upshot, Diop wrote, is that only a continent or subcontinent wide federated state can offer a safe political and economic area, stable enough for a rational formula covering the development of our countries with their infinitely varied potentials to be put into effect. That therefore, he continued, is the framework within which we have chosen to deal with Africa’s energy problems.

He said Black Africa will have to find a formula of energy pluralism that harmoniously combines utilization of the following sources of energy: 1) Hydroelectric energy (dams); 2) Solar energy; 3) Nuclear energy; 4) Geothermal energy;   5) Hydrocarbon (petroleum) and 6) Thermonuclear energy.

While Eskom in 2020 is still struggling to supply reliable and uninterrupted electricity to industries and the people of South Africa, Diop informed us in 1960 that the first five sources of energy were already utilisable to various degrees in Africa and the rest of the world, while the last had not reached a practically operable stage. He, however, said despite a requisite degree of pessimism, that its application would become operational within the next forty years. Diop said if thermonuclear energy were to become available, with effective control of thermonuclear reactions, the energy needs of the planet would be answered for a period of a billion years. He said the future instruments that produce thermonuclear energy, would be fed in their final and truly operational stages by heavy hydrogen, obtained basically through electrolysis of sea water.

South Africa has access to two oceans. So why is the electricity generation and supply a problem in this country? There shouldn’t be problems of electricity in South Africa. The problems at Eskom were deliberately created in order to privatise Eskom. Independent Power Producers who wreaked havoc in Ghana are also a problem. The problem with most African leaders is that they don’t learn from history and think some of the problems Africa experiences now have not occurred in the past. Diop complained about a private organisation, the Union of African Producers and Distributors of Electricity was set up in the past to complete the grid.  He said the ideal would be for problems as vital as this to be taken in hand by a continent wide federated state rather than by a foreign financial group.

Diop said Africa is a continent rich in power. Equipping the present sites and connecting them in an African grid would permit the creating of an integrated continent wide electrical-energy market, covering virtually all the energy needs of the African states through rational distribution without waste. The interconnection of grids is so rational a solution that even countries with different economic systems resort to it. An example is the ten USSR and Europe where certain purchases were paid for with electric power.

Establishment of the African grid would allow for power from Zaire to be delivered even to the edges of the desert and, thus, keep the latter from spreading.

On solar energy, Diop said ongoing research with the view to reducing the cost of solar cells would allow us by the year 2000 to have operational solar power plants, known as land or space heliovoltaics.

It was by design that we don’t have African Nuclear Physicists such as Diop in South Africa so that we should remain forever handicapped in the field of nuclear physics. Many young South Africans don’t know that the apartheid government didn’t allow Africans to study nuclear physics. Those who wanted to study nuclear physics had to go and study abroad. There are two former Orlando High School students who matriculated at that school who studied nuclear physics abroad. They were Reginald Boleu who left South Africa on an exit permit around 1964 and Wellington Mlungisi Tshazibane who was killed in detention at John Vorster Square in December 1976 after the plane he boarded from Lesotho was forced to land in Bloemfontein in violation of international law and Aviation. Boleu lives in Europe. It is for this reason I condemned the proposed school curriculum that is designed to make Grade 9 the exit point for African students. We need to train more African scientists to solve our scientific, technological and development problems.

It is absolutely unnecessary for the South African government and Eskom to be experiencing electricity problems when Africa is a continent rich in power. The debt said to be owed by the people of Soweto should be scrapped and more and cheaper methods of generating electricity as outlined by Diop must be used to be supplied to the poor on the basis of a flat rate of about R100 a month to avoid default on payments and the victimisation of poor people.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.