Eskom: Crisis, what crisis?

William Saunderson-Meyer says that as SA fumes in the dark there is no sign of the ANC doing anything differently


As load shedding, yet again, hits Stage 6, the South African press, yet again, has been filled with warnings about the “Eskom crisis”.

In response to these events, there was an enormous public clamour for President Cyril Ramaphosa to return forthwith from an overseas trip. For at least the second time since he became president, CR had to cut short his foreign travels — this time a meeting with President Joe Biden, attending Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, and an address to the United Nations — to save his country from yet another existential crisis at Eskom. 

An Eskom crisis? No such thing. And even if there were one, why on earth would anyone think that Ramaphosa could or would make the slightest difference?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a crisis is a moment of “great danger when problems must be solved”. The FreeDictionary says it’s a “crucial point involving impending change”. 

In other words, the defining aspects of a crisis are that it is sudden, critical and will imminently be resolved. (Although, rather gloomily but appropriately in a South African context, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that in a crisis the “impending decisive change” is accompanied by the “distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome”.) ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

So it’s somewhat of a misnomer to describe two decades of African National Congress government neglect, incompetence and interference in the running of the national power utility as a “crisis”. More accurate descriptors are “inherent disaster” and “sick joke”.

Eskom, at the dawn of democracy in 1994, seemed unassailable. Internationally admired, it was the epitome of what could be achieved, albeit it was by their hated National Party predecessors, using the developmental-state model that the ANC claims to want to emulate. 

As we await the regulator’s decision on the 32% tariff increase that Eskom recently demanded, it’s worth remembering that under the Nats, South Africa had the lowest electricity prices in the world and Eskom regularly won plaudits for being the best power generator. As recently as 2001, Eskom was named “Best Power Company” in the Financial Times Global Energy Awards. 

However, behind the scenes, things were falling apart. An ANC government White Paper warned in 1998 that the country would run out of power capacity by 2007 unless major investments were made. In other words, there would be a crisis.

President Thabo Mbeki’s response was one of scepticism. His administration responded by ordering a stop to new power station builds. At the same time, Eskom embarked upon a big in-house bout of ethnic cleansing. Skilled white employees were retrenched by the thousands to ensure demographic representivity.

By 2008, Eskom was in serious straits and severe bouts of load shedding and blackouts were happening. This particular Eskom crisis made international headlines for the first time during the 2010 Soccer World Cup and was cited as evidence of the country’s relentless decline towards Third World status, to the anger of most South Africans. 

Unfortunately, most of us were wrong. It was exactly that. 

The Eskom crises have not disappeared since. All that has happened is that they've zig-zagged in scale — unless you live in a suburb blessed with immunity because it’s home to some ANC big knob — from being inconvenient and irritating, to the ruinous and life-changing. Why invest in a country that in the first 265 days of this year had 115 days of curtailed power supply?

Over the past 14 years, the daily existence of South Africans, as well as their means of earning a living, have been turned upside down. Everything has had to be reorganised, as best possible, to fit in with Eskom’s daily load-shedding schedules, which outline, according to where one lives, blackouts ranging from a few hours to 10 hours a day. 

Life goes on. People adapt to the hassle and additional expense of solar panels, generators, inverters, and the cost of equipment damaged by electrical surges. Sullen acceptance replaces incandescent rage. 

And this is surely one of the more disturbing aspects of an otherwise dysfunctional bureaucracy? Its deftness at drawing the sting from justified public anger by smothering it under schedules, charts, tables and lists. 

What would in a rational world be viewed as outrageous and unacceptable, is sneakily recast, and soon enough accepted, as the “new normal”. Or as Eskom puts it cheerily, simply “plan your day” around its outages.

While canny officialdom can shape behaviour and blunt resentment, the economic repercussions are more difficult to gloss over. Financial services company Alexander Forbes estimates that Stage 6 load shedding exacts an economic penalty of R4bn a day on the Gross Domestic Product, while StatsSA attributes 2022’s second-quarter decline in GDP of 0.7% to the earlier, relatively mild outages of Stage 2 and 3.

At no point during this sorry saga has the ANC been able to bestir itself to make the critical interventions that constitute crisis management. On the contrary, dogma and inertia continue to prevail.

Starting in the Mbeki years, the ANC, as a party, was raking off hundreds of millions annually from questionable construction and procurement contracts. Under his successor, Jacob Zuma, it became a more individualistic free-for-all, with corrupt executives and officials piling in to loot as much as possible as quickly as possible.

The upshot is that Eskom today produces less electricity than it did in 2006, yet it has 15,000 more employees than it had then. The average wage packet is an eye-watering R737,000 a year, placing the average Eskom worker in the SA Revenue Service’s top-10% category of taxpayers.

According to World Bank estimates, the utility is overstaffed by 66%. Yet, last week, its chief operating officer, Jan Oberholzer, admitted that Eskom’s staff and contractors lacked the skills to repair and maintain generation infrastructure.

But that’s just another Eskom crisis that the government has no intention of addressing. Last month, Solidarity trade union provided Public Energy Minister Pravin Gordhan with a list of 300 experts, each averaging close to 20 years in the sector and many with international experience, ready and eager to help rescue Eskom.

However, they were unfortunately of the wrong complexion. Only 18 have been hired. Instead, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter was instructed to set up a crowd-sourcing platform to draw on a more demographically representative pool of expertise. 

Eskom crisis? No sense of crisis here. 

This brings us to the only aspect of this catastrophe that is unfathomable — the apparent public belief that Ramaphosa can sort out the problem. After all, this is the man who in 2014 was appointed to head Eskom's so-called war room to address the “crisis” and ever since has been the font of an endless stream of platitudinous reassurances, with not a single concrete achievement to his credit.

It’s such public naïveté that’s the real crisis. As for Eskom? Well, that’s just another run-of-the-mill ANC disaster.

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