What if South Africa withdrew from Inga III, the hydroelectric project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that can potentially electrify a large part of the continent and drive regional development? In October 2013, the South African government committed to purchasing 2.5 of the 11 gigawatts that Inga III could potentially generate, and has continued to publicly reiterate its support for the project as recently as February 2020.
Yet committing to Inga makes little financial or energy policy sense for South Africa. This explains why South Africa’s current Inga policy is contradictory, oscillating between the desire to project an image of being a pan-Africanist power promoting the continent’s economic development, and the reality that buying electricity from Inga III would be risky and may be more expensive than most other sources available domestically.
In October 2019, the Congo Research Group (CRG) and Resource Matters demonstrated how the Inga III project, which was being negotiated behind closed doors, was intended for outside consumption and did not guarantee access to electricity for the millions of Congolese who are forced to go without.
In this new report, “I Need You, I Don’t Need You: South Africa and Inga III”, released on Thursday, March 19, CRG and Phuzumoya Consulting, a Cape Town-based consulting firm, explain South Africa’s continued interest in Inga III, putting it in the context of the country’s foreign and economic policy.
Today, the project’s controversy within South Africa means that the country may be looking for an exit strategy. But South Africa fears withdrawing from Inga and thereby giving the impression that it has reneged on its post-apartheid commitment to contribute to the economic development of the continent. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s failure to meet its commitments would, however, offer it an honorable exit from the project. If construction of the dam does not start by 2023, South Africa will not be able to start drawing its 2.5 gigawatts from Inga in 2030 as agreed, and could thus declare the Grand Inga project treaty null and void.
Were South Africa to abandon Inga III, it would be a significant blow to this project in the world’s largest potential hydropower site. Indeed, without its guarantee to purchase Inga III’s power, the project may not be bankable or feasible.
Apart from a possible withdrawal by South Africa, two other factors could call the project into question: the withdrawal at the end of January of the Spanish company ACS, a member of one of the two consortiums selected to develop the dam, and the new Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi’s desire to take the project in a new direction. At this stage, the future of Inga III is, once again, up in the air.