A dark Christmas

William Saunderson-Meyer says the reality of state dysfunction has cast a pall over seasonal cheer


The end of the school term came early this year, with the seaside-bound traffic already snaking down to the coast in the first week of December. And an economy deep in the doldrums meant that business and industry was slowing earlier than usual, ahead of the traditional month-long festive season’s total shutdown.

Under such conditions of reduced electrical demand, a nation gatvol of government crises, institutional collapses, and political scandals was looking forward to a happy holiday time. Instead, the state electricity supplier, out of the blue, briefly imposed an unprecedented stage six load shedding, with rolling blackouts of up to four-and-a-half hours a day, sparking howls of public disbelief and fury.

It is an indication both of Eskom’s incompetence and the government’s lack of comprehension at how fast South Africa’s downward spiral is happening, that there were no outage timetables available. A stage six collapse of the national grid had not been imagined, never mind planned for. Belatedly, Eskom warned that it was now readying for stages seven and eight also, meaning that power would be cut for up to 12 hours a day.

Eskom’s excuses have ranged from wet coal to broken conveyor belts. President Cyril Ramaphosa, cavorting in Egypt on a minor diplomatic junket, hurried home and threw his own bolt into the turbine, stating that there had been sabotage by Eskom workers.

We live in an increasingly surreal country. The previous president keeps claiming that he has been poisoned — first by one of his wives, then intimating that it’s the dastardly agents of imperialism who want to assassinate him because of his commitment to the betterment of the peasantry. The present president wanders around in a perpetual state of bemused befuddlement, after two years in office still incapable of exercising his powers for fear of a party revolt.

A week back, Ramaphosa tweeted how magnificent the new power stations at Medupi and Kusile were.  A week later, on arrival from Egypt, he professed — it has become his hackneyed signature response to an apparently unending stream of previously unthinkable events — to be “shocked” by the collapse of the grid.

Although Ramaphosa’s allegations of sabotage were met with public scorn, he is very likely correct that sabotage played some role in Eskom’s woes. The unions have a long history of public violence when their wishes are thwarted. 

Assault, killings and arson have become part of their tactical armoury, to be deployed with impunity, since the police rarely make arrests. Control room shenanigans to trigger the grid’s unexpected collapse would be nothing to the militants who believe fervently that sowing chaos will hasten the “national democratic revolution”. 

There are many on the centre-right of the political spectrum who are gleeful about the hastening pace of collapse of the state-owned entities (SOEs). The sooner this happens, goes the reasoning, the sooner the governing alliance will be forced to abandon its tattered socialist dreams of a command economy.

Similarly, there are ideological pragmatists, too, in the African National Congress, who see in the imminent rolling collapse of SOEs an opportunity of sorts. It means, goes the reasoning, that the relentless momentum of unfolding events will provide the government with a reason to ignore the policy shackles that were imposed on Ramaphosa by the Zuma faction, in a final act of revenge. 

They may be right. A month ago, the unions pledged to their members that there would be above-inflation increases, no job cuts, and no privatisation at the overstaffed, overpaid national airline. Today, SAA is in a business rescue process that — if it manages to avoid bankruptcy — will slash the payroll, freeze wages, and at the very least, open the door to public-private partnerships.

Just because ministers have stated Eskom is “too big to fail” doesn’t mean that the same processes will not play out there. The only thing “too big” at the power utility is the gargantuan level of indebtedness and the speed with which debt is growing, making the “fail” part of the equation inevitable.

This means, as with SAA, that the ANC is having to contemplate the previously unthinkable. The long resistance to allowing the mines and other large users to source their own power must surely be about to change. 

Independent power producers will soon be allowed, for no other reason than if the government does not allow it, SA’s economy will not grow next year. Take with a pinch of salt the reiteration, after the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting this week, that privatisation was not part of the “bold and creative solutions” the government had in mind for the troubled SOEs. 

The truth is, at long last, the ideological doors are being battered open by reality. The NEC conceded that the government would, however, consider private investment, with the caveat that the state retained majority control.  

It is to be welcomed that the government now recognises that it needs private sector investment and expertise. The NEC is either dishonest or delusional in stating that such benefits can be acquired while imposing continued state control, with all the corruption and ineptness that this implies.

Admittedly, I may be too optimistic in my reading of the runes. The press statement after the NEC meeting devoted six lines to lamenting the death of struggle stalwart Ben Turok, five lines to congratulating Zozibini Tunzi on winning the Miss Universe contest, and only four anodyne lines to Eskom’s load shedding.

Perhaps reality will have to bite a little harder before the message sinks home. Brace yourself for Eskom's stage eight. Or even 10?

Happy holidays.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye