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South African official floats 'debt for climate' plan for Eskom

·2 min read

By Alexander Winning

JOHANNESBURG, July 30 (Reuters) - A debt crisis at South Africa's struggling state-owned utility Eskom could be solved by an agreement for government creditors to write off some of their loans in exchange for climate pledges and an equity injection, a deputy minister said on Friday.

But one analyst was sceptical about the idea, describing it as unrealistic.

Officials in Africa's most industrialised nation have grappled for years with ways to lower Eskom's debt burden, which stood at 401 billion rand ($27.56 billion) in March.

The company, which regularly implements power cuts that hold back economic growth, racked up the debt partly to pay for two mega coal plants dogged by delays and cost overruns.

Two options previously discussed are transferring some Eskom debt to the sovereign balance sheet or moving a portion to a special purpose vehicle.

But in comments at a meeting of the presidential climate commission, South Africa's Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo said he did not support those ideas.

Instead he proposed three ways to raise capital: listing Eskom on a stock exchange, inviting a foreign state-owned firm to invest or arranging a "sovereign-level debt for climate swap". Under the last proposal, creditors would forgive some sovereign loans in exchange for commitments to curb Eskom's emissions by closing some of its coal units and an equity injection into Eskom.

Masondo said the ideas were his personal views, not necessarily the official position of the National Treasury.

"To get out of this debt situation we really have to think outside the box," he said. "The continuous mantra that Eskom should improve its operational efficiency and that's how we are going to deal with this debt, I don't see that working, and we also don't want them to raise the tariffs."

The National Treasury acknowledged an emailed request for comment from Reuters but did not answer questions in time for publication. An Eskom spokesman declined comment.

Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at Intellidex, said Masondo's suggestions risked confusing investors as they did not represent National Treasury or Eskom thinking.

He said: "It is completely unrealistic for a middle income country to expect principal write-off by creditors, especially when those creditors have traditionally had energy policy trust issues." ($1 = 14.5502 rand) (Editing by Barbara Lewis)

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