What South Africans learned last night – if we did not already know it – is that if we are to make progress as a country, it will happen despite and not because of our politicians. Everyone lost in last night’s State of the Nation embarrassment: the EFF who, after chasing around one of their own MPs in the streets of Cape Town, interrupted the president repeatedly during his State of the Nation Address; the Speaker, who ordered armed police to forcibly remove the boisterous EFF members; and ANC MPs, for cheering on while EFF members were assaulted. And I haven’t even mentioned the jamming device used to scramble all cellular networks (shut down only after journalists and opposition MPs insisted that it be turned off). Or the fact that DA members marching outside were hosed down by riot police, and some arrested. The solemn figures of Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk in the parliamentary gallery depicted perfectly how far our country’s leadership has fallen.
But perhaps, in search of our dark cloud’s silver lining, what happened in parliament yesterday, although a reflection of the state of the nation, is not a reflection of the future of the nation. Another South African made news yesterday, news that will affect countless more lives (even South African ones) than what our president did or could say in a State of the Nation address. Instead of focusing on the sorry figure of Zuma, perhaps we should pay more attention to the ideas and plans of our greatest export in recent years: Elon Musk, founder and owner of Tesla and SpaceX, who is, incredibly, still only 41 years old. Musk announced on Wednesday that Tesla is planning to unveil a new lithium-ion battery pack that homeowners could buy to store and supply their own energy. Here’s Time Magazine:
Details on the batteries were sparse, but an obvious use would be placing them in homes equipped with solar panels to store excess energy. Solar energy company SolarCity already offers Tesla battery packs in some markets that customers can use to store energy and use as a kind of emergency generator. Musk is the chairman of SolarCity and its largest shareholder.
In addition to selling to residential customers, Tesla could also sell batteries to utilities trying to increase energy efficiency.
A shortage of electricity is arguably South Africa’s most immediate constraint: South Africa is producing less electricity than it did twenty years ago, owing to a lack of investment in new power plants and maintenance on existing ones. It is embarrassing to explain to my international visitors that, yes, we have a schedule about when power cuts will occur. Load shedding is killing investment, growth and jobs. Zuma acknowledged as much: “The country is currently experiencing serious energy constraints which are an impediment to economic growth and is a major inconvenience to everyone in the country”. He outlined short, medium and long-term responses, none new. According to most experts, we can expect load shedding for most of 2015 and well into 2016.
That is, if we trust government to deliver on its promises. We shouldn’t. Last night showed us that the best we can hope for is a government that does little harm. Don’t expect that any time soon, though. Instead, we should trust those people who have an incentive to get things right: if they do, and we begin to use batteries in our homes like we use toasters, they win fame and fortune. Musk will become an even richer genius. Politicians, in contrast, have none of those incentives. The way they make money is to skim the cream off a big tender. Delays mean larger contracts and more to skim off. There is nothing in politics that incentivize leaders to be efficient.
Entrepreneurs are different. They must innovate, improve, and deliver to satisfy the demands of millions of consumers. The better they do this, the more money they make. And this innovation improves the planet, too. Battery-powered homes (and cars and offices) will allow us to make better use of renewable energies, especially in a sunny and windy South Africa. It will allow us to connect the 3.5 million people that still don’t have access to electricity. (Consider the impact cell phone technology on African living standards.) And it will allow us to escape the inefficiencies of badly-run state monopolies. #powertothepeople #inmuskwetrust
Better politicians are not the answer to South Africa’s woes. Better entrepreneurs are. For South Africans, the light at the end of Eskom’s dark tunnel is a fast-approaching train. For Musk, it’s an entirely new world.