Andrew Donaldson on the ANC's attempt to identify the culprits for SA's electricity crisis


I WONDER if they breathed a sigh of relief in Davos when they heard Cyril Ramaphosa had cancelled his trip to the World Economic Forum. The plutocrats can now at least get on with the business of pretending to care about the world’s problems without being touched for “investments” and bored to tears by all those renew year’s resolutions.

The chief reason for Squirrel’s non-attendance is well-known both locally and abroad. It is Eskom, which, as the New York Times euphemistically noted, is “overwhelmed by demand” and thus compelled to impose “rolling blackouts”. Other newspapers have not been as mealy-mouthed. 

The Guardian, for example, places the blame squarely at the feet of the ruling party and cites the criminal networks that operate within Eskom as being the greatest obstacle to the entity’s possible recovery. The newspaper also reported on the alleged cyanide poisoning of chief executive André de Ruyter. “After officially taking office in January 2020,” it said, “De Ruyter led a company-wide clampdown on corruption and organised criminal behaviour, including sabotage of infrastructure, at Eskom plants. He has now resigned, citing a lack of political support, and will leave his post on 31 March.”

A series of poor decisions by ANC leaders has also exacerbated the crisis over the last decade, the newspaper said. One recent example is energy minister Gwede Mantashe’s dogged resistance to private sector power generation as well wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

“Anger is growing,” it continued, “as offices, hospitals, factories and tens of thousands of small businesses are forced to close, with outages also causing increased crime, traffic disruption and massive wastage as food supply chains collapse. Protesters [in Boksburg] blocked roads with burning tyres on Monday, while a newspaper in the township of Soweto ran the headline ‘Unplugged’ on its front page and listed dozens of local businesses that were struggling.”

I mention this because, if this is what is appearing in a left-leaning newspaper, you can imagine what is running in the right-wing press. Be that as it may, none of this will have escaped the attention of those at Davos.

One almost feels sorry for the president’s stand-in at the WEF, finance minister Enoch Godongwana, who must now bother delegates with chatter that the government has a plan to end load shedding within the next 12 to 18 months. Parroting the Squirrel, as it were: the problems of the past will be dealt with, the lights will come on and the country and all those who invest in its infrastructure will be assured of a rosy and prosperous future.

It’s worth noting that, not only is South Africa one of the world’s biggest sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide polluters, but its staggering output in raw bullshit is now without equal. I have done some research on the matter and found the moral philosopher Harry G Frankfurt’s work in this regard, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005), rather helpful. He writes:

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognise bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.”

Frankfurt then sets out to get to grips with the matter. What bullshit is not, he suggests, is lying. It is true that both misrepresent the truth, but their intentions are entirely different. The liar, he says, is “someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood”. The liar is thus aware of the truth — but won’t tell it. The bullshitter, however, “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” 

Thus the distinction that helps us understand the government’s “management” (if that is the term) of Eskom. How else to rationalise the assertion, now gaining considerable traction within ANC circles, that load shedding is an attack on South Africa — as if the power outages had nothing to do with them

It was Mantashe who in December first claimed that Eskom was trying to overthrow the government. The foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, then honked it up a notch by suggesting the repeated power outages were assaults on the country itself. This week the party summoned Eskom executives to parliament and reportedly accused them of sabotaging the ANC chances in the 2024 general elections. It’s outrageous, but they believe this stuff, they honestly do. 

As Frankfurt puts it: 

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction … When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

The ANC leadership falls into the latter category. They just make it up as they lurch from one self-made catastrophe to the next. As the elections approach, we can expect their output to be more fulsome, rich in its aromatic loaminess…

Hello sailors!

The South African Navy, it’s commonly held, is not ship-shape. Chronic underfunding means it cannot meet its operational commitments, much less maintain and repair its dilapidated fleet. Due to a lack of serviceable tubs, personnel have been unable put in enough sea hours to even justify the pretence of being a maritime force. Simon’s Town is consequently awash with bored sailors. Talk of unnatural enthusiasms at swingers’ parties in the nearby suburb of Glencairn Heights is not uncommon and it’s hardly surprising that the famous Boulders penguins are now threatened.

What does alarm, however, are the SAN’s widely derided ambitions to next month embark on exercises off the KwaZulu-Natal coast with Russian and Chinese warships. The exercises have been dubbed Operation Mosi, which was the name given to previous exercises with Russia and China. Mosi means “smoke”, but it may as well be “smokescreen” as this will quite likely be a Potemkin affair, an exercise in name only as far as the SAN is concerned. 

As the Brenthurst Foundation’s Greg Mills and Ray Hartley note, there is “no evidence that the vessels acquired under the infamous Arms Deal — four frigates and three submarines — are operational. There has not been, reportedly, a submarine at sail for many months, and naval experts suggest that South Africa can only put one frigate to sea, but in a marginal, constabulary role only.”

The SAN will, in other words, have little more than observer status here, looking on in stupefied awe as the Russians and Chinese pull out their big guns and play among themselves. This is provided, of course, that Mosi takes place close to the shore; given its overall condition, our navy is understandably wary of deeper water.

Aside from this, there are the moral and political implications to this farce. Mosi is yet another example of the ANC government’s allegedly “neutral” stance on Russia’s appalling war on Ukraine. The obdurate reluctance to condemn Vladimir Putin’s genocidal adventure had already escalated tensions with the United States, Britain and the European Union — by far South Africa’s biggest trading partners — and the decision to open its ports to sanctioned Russian ships will only lead to further deterioration in relations.

As it is, the government has yet to offer a satisfactory explanation for the Lady R affair. South Africans are well aware that the ANC permits all sorts of rubbish to make use of the country’s key military installations, but this was no wedding party at our largest naval base. The Lady R, a sanctioned Russian ro-ro/freighter switched off its maritime tracking system two days before it docked at Simon’s Town on December 7 last year. According to eyewitnesses, the vessel conducted nighttime cargo operations until December 9 as containers of undisclosed material were trucked into the base under armed escort. 

Rare respite, you may suppose, from the enforced gaiety up in Glencairn Heights. But the DA’s shadow defence minister, Kobus Marais, thought it all rather suspicious. “While trucks transporting containers are not uncommon, it is, however, very unusual for such activities to take place at night,” he said. “The vessel should have docked at Table Bay harbour just like other commercial vessels.”

It was widely speculated that the Lady R was loading South African weaponry for Russia — and perhaps for use in Ukraine. Government initially remained schtum on the matter. However, just before Christmas, defence minister Thandi Modise made a bit of arse of herself by telling journalists she could not comment on the contents of the ship’s cargo as this would be “guessing”, adding: “I am waiting for the paperwork; I’m waiting for the people who know.”

Modise then doubled down in the arse department, suggesting the cargo was “an old outstanding order” for ammunition. As she put it: “We do know, however, that whatever contents this vessel was getting, were ordered long before Covid started, and therefore the reason you are interested and America is interested in that vessel, coming into our shores, is actually because America threatens the rest of Africa — not just South Africa — of having anything that is even smelling of Russia. As far as they’re concerned, we must consume all the Russian vodka quickly and if it is depleted you will be found wanting for drinking the Russian vodka.”

Her flippancy incensed the US ambassador to SA, Reuben Brigety II. He told News24 that the consulate’s stance was previously not to comment on such matters, but in this case, the Americans wanted a response from Modise. 

“We are trying very hard to be respectful of the sovereignty of the government of South Africa,” Brigety said. “[However, Modise's] remarks are inaccurate, they are irresponsible, and they are inexcusable. It is factually inaccurate to claim that the US government threatens Africa and threatens South Africa with anything to do with regards to Russia.”

The Americans, as it turned out, had been monitoring the Lady R for some time. On November 23, a fortnight before the ship docked in Simon’s Town, the US embassy issued a formal diplomatic notice to the South African government about the freighter but received no response. This notice, Brigety said, was to alert Pretoria of the Lady R’s movements and to reiterate that the vessel was sanctioned by the US because of its activities in providing war material to the Russian Federation.

“It is inconceivable,” he said, “that a merchant vessel would turn off its automatic identification system and be allowed to be ported in a naval base under cover of darkness and have cargo offloaded or loaded and be allowed to leave the shores 48 hours later. The amount of co-ordination they had to have had for that to happen ... could not have been allowed without any authorisation of someone senior in government.”

Perhaps it was diplomatic restraint, but Brigety did not comment on the smell of Russia — or, in fact, how to drink its vodka. This is a pity. But I shall oblige. 

Traditionally, Russia reeks of stale cabbage, broken tractors and burnt poetry. Add to this the aroma of dead soldiers, unwashed armpits and empty larders and we can well understand the pervading glumness of the place. It’s no wonder, then, that they consume their vodka at a gallop. The express train to oblivion and all that. 

There is absolutely no reason why we should follow suit. But, given events in Ukraine, we should boycott the Russian stuff and instead opt for Finnish or Polish vodka, which is so much easier on the conscience and results in a far superior hangover to the one the ANC has in mind for us. 

As for the navy, they may find that rum is the way to go. Provided, of course, they do manage to spend some time at sea.

Digitally yours, etc

There has been much concern among “creatives” in recent weeks about artificial intelligence. In the US, for example, a class action has been brought against several AI companies whose content generating models make use of billions of images without consent. They are, it is charged, plagiarism machines. Elsewhere, and of more concern to hacks like myself, an AI bot, ChatGPT, has since its launch in November already “created” a number of literature essays and sitcom scripts. 

With that in mind, and the possibility of more down time at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), I wondered how AI would fare at penning a Grouse. 

First up, I tried Rytr, an “AI writing assistant that helps you create high-quality content, in just a few seconds, at a fraction of the cost!”. Rytr doesn’t have a template for columns, so I chose its blog option. I selected “humorous” for tone and, as my topic, entered “Jacob Zuma” along with the keywords, “butternut”, “corrupt”, “dancing”, “crimes”, “political ambitions” and “embittered”. Almost immediately, it came up with this:

“Jacob Zuma is a South African former politician who had a tumultuous nine-year presidency. Known for his love of butternut, dancing, and political ambitions, his time in office was not without controversy. As rumours swirled around him regarding corruption and embittered relationships with other politicians, he was eventually brought to court on charges related to serious crimes. As we look back on Jacob Zuma’s political career and all its ups and downs, one thing is certain: it was never dull!”

Not very encouraging, is it? I tried Contentbot next, wanting an opening paragraph for a blog on Convict Number One. I wasn’t asked for keywords, but it did give me an option for a sarcastic tone, which, naturally, I selected. It came up with three offerings within seconds. Here is the first:

“Ah, Jacob Zuma. He's been a controversial figure in South African politics since the early 2000s. From his alleged corruption to his multiple wives, there’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to the former president. But what's the real story behind the man? Who is Jacob Zuma and why has he been so divisive? In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the life and times of the South African politician, and explore why he’s so polarising. So grab your popcorn, grab your tea (or coffee, if you're one of those people), and get ready to dive into the rise and fall of the man who once ruled South Africa: Jacob Zuma.”

The other two weren’t much better. It’s fair to say that, even with the leaps and bounds with which these things are progressing, it’ll be a while before the machines take over … although who knows what is happening at the Iqbal Surve fish-wraps.