A new dawn gone dark

William Saunderson-Meyer says Ramaphosa was clearly happy to be in the UK, and no wonder


It warmed the cockles of my heart to see President Cyril Ramaphosa so happy and exuberant during his state visit to the United Kingdom.

There he was, sashaying down red carpets between guards of honour, attending a royal state banquet, and cheekily taking advantage of the rare honour of addressing both houses of parliament to demand grants and more concessional loans to fund South Africa’s “just transition” from coal. There was also a trundle down the Mall to Buckingham Palace, ensconced in a horse-drawn gilded coach and escorted by a cavalry squadron with sabres drawn. 

In all, a blissful contrast to home. The last time we saw Ramaphosa flash his gums with such enthusiasm in South Africa was shortly after he had deposed his evil predecessor and a deliriously happy public was mobbing him on his morning jogs to slap his back and to touch the magic of his New Dawn raiments.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Alas, dawn turned quickly to dusk. The only hands now directed at his back are the dagger-clasping paws of his party comrades.

Electrical power has gone. Water is going. Civil unrest and violent crime are increasing.

As if on cue, the moment Ramaphosa left South Africa for the UK, Eskom plunged into yet another crisis. This is par for the course. The Radical Economic Transformation saboteurs crippling Eskom facilities time their actions for the greatest political advantage and to showcase the president’s impotence.

Ramaphosa has twice had to cut short overseas visits to return and be seen to be “dealing with the crisis”. That this largely consists of wringing his hands and making soothing noises, is manna from Heaven for his enemies. So the moment he leaves and Eskom goes into spasms, the opposition parties and his foes within the African National Congress bait him with demands that he returns to provide “leadership”.

This time with Eskom it was not sabotage but stupidity that knocked out the grid. Shortly after the presidential jet departed for London, the utility announced that it had run out of budget to fuel the turbines that provide fall-back power generation. It had burned through its annual R11bn diesel budget in just six months and said it shorted another R15bn to keep the flickering emergency lighting going.

Since there was no additional government money forthcoming, Eskom had to increase load shedding of up to 8 hours a day, with the prospect of worse to come. Even if Treasury support or additional loan finance could be procured, because of projected delays in fuel delivery as Western nations scramble to make up for the loss of Russian gas supplies in the coming winter, there would be no relief until April next year.

Somehow, nobody in the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) had twigged that Eskom would be unable to buy diesel without any money. And Eskom’s pleas to Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan had gone unheeded.

Business Day columnist Peter Bruce bemoans the lack of “common sense” displayed not only in this latest debacle but in the government’s cack-handed approach in general. That’s true, as far as it goes, but there is something more than just a lack of practicality at issue here. 

The real problem is the ANC’s ruinous combination of ideological rigidity with moral spinelessness. This is a government that can’t think on its feet for fear of doing something that inadvertently contradicts the sacred tenets of Marxist-Leninist theory. To make matters worse, at the same time it will invariably cave to the basest populist sentiment of its supporters, no matter what the ultimate cost.

Gordhan is probably the most overrated minister in the government. Favoured by ANC left, in 2009 he was brought into Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet to replace the eminently sensible Trevor Manuel as Minister of Finance. Ramaphosa put him in charge of DPE and for the past more than four years he has presided over the implosion of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) sector.

Despite his dictatorial approach and poor ministerial record, Gordhan remains the darling of the media, largely because he resisted state capture. He is accordingly lionised in a recent book by two seasoned journalists. The cringingly uncritical biography, published only in March, is already not ageing well.

He and Ramaphosa both portray themselves as pragmatists when seeking overseas investment and aid. The reality, however, is that they continue to take decisions on strongly ideological grounds, despite their self-evidently catastrophic effects. 

With Ramaphosa it can be seen in his championing of land expropriation without compensation, cadre deployment, race quotas in employment, and the vandalising of the private healthcare sector. With Gordhan, the disasters are obvious to most people. The collapse of the SOEs — Eskom, Transnet, SA Airways, the Passenger Rail Agency and Denel being the worst — is rooted largely in Gordhan’s reckless determination to retain state control of these sectors at any cost. 

South Africa’s present plight is not the legacy of apartheid and colonialism, of the North-South divide.  It’s not the lack of physical and human resources. It’s caused by the ANC’s deliberate impotence — an intellectual inflexibility coupled with gutlessness in execution.

For now, Gordhan has averted the newest electricity crisis. Ramaphosa, basking in all the pomp and ceremony that a new king and new prime minister could lavish on him, did not have to hurry home this time.

An emergency meeting was held on Sunday with the Eskom board. In a media statement dripping with condescension and dishonesty, DPE did its best to portray Gordhan as chivalrously riding to the rescue of a power utility that somehow doesn’t understand how complicated things like budgets and maintenance schedules work.

Eskom, said the DPE, would undertake “to continuously ensure that its officials are made more cognisant of the importance of a reliable electricity system to the economic and social well-being of all South Africans”.

Since then, Gordhan has fortuitously discovered that PetroSA, another of his stuffed-up SOEs, had been hiding 50m litres of diesel under the sofa. This will be diverted to Eskom to keep the gas turbines going for another two weeks.

By then, says Gordhan, a “permanent fix” will have been found for Eskom. Much like the “permanent fix” he promised for SAA, no doubt,

That involved lots of super glue, favoured comrades, and a murky organisational and funding structure that he has repeatedly refused to disclose to Parliament. 

Hope Ramaphosa enjoyed his London junket while it lasted. In terms of public approval, it’s all downhill at home.

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