Political economy of energy in southern Africa


What is the available evidence on the political economy of power in Southern Africa?


Some African states, with encouragement from international donors, have developed regional power sharing arrangements as a strategy to deal with the continent’s energy problems. Power pools aim to balance electrical loads over a larger network, lower electricity prices, and expand access by encouraging trade and investment in the sector.

The Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) is the southern African regional electricity grid that allows for regional power sharing. It is comprised of Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.The Southern African Development Community (SADC) takes a leading role in the SAPP, coordinating activities among different national electricity companies and facilitating a shared electricity grid and market. Though considered one of the most advanced power pools in Africa, trade among countries in the region remains fairly limited. South Africa is the dominant player both in producing and exporting electrical energy. Some of the key challenges identified in the literature concerning power sharing arrangements include:

  • Overcoming differences in the capacity and needs of different member states;
  • Lack of infrastructure and maintenance which constrains both transmission congestion within transit countries, and at interconnection level between countries;
  • Human resource capacity, including the impact of HIV/AIDS, is a regional problem and has had an impact on the operation of member utilities.

Inadequate financing has hampered effective regional power integration in southern Africa, particularly due to limited investments in generation and transmission infrastructure. Both public investments and overseas development assistance will not be sufficient to fill regional and national gaps, demanding enhanced private sector participation. However, there are some factors identified in the literature as placing constraints on attracting private capital, including the historic poor performance of utilities, and a lack of agreement among states in key priorities and needs for investment. Some experts caution against privatisation of energy providers and call for the development of a more inclusion electricity system that includes government accountability, pro-poor planning, and the development of community-level electricity services.