Eskom's dark comedy

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the surreal politics surrounding the imploding parastatal


The tragicomedy that is EskomSA, unfolding on an intermittently lit stage before an increasingly restless audience, is daily becoming more surreal.

The white knight scripted to thwart the baddies suddenly drops his cyanide-laced coffee and staggers offstage, never to be seen again. The genial king — it’s yet to be revealed whether he is a clown, a fool, or a final-act superhero — gifts the knight’s estate to the villainous uncle who serves as the regent’s righthand man. 

Meanwhile, the peasants march on the castle to protest the Dark Empire. Not to be outdone, the footsoldiers of the Dark Empire march on the castle to protest against themselves.

Following the resignation and alleged poisoning of Eskom CEO André de Ruyter, South Africans have watched slack-jawed the escalation of dire events over the past few weeks. 

De Ruyter’s valiant but doomed efforts to rescue the power utility laid bare how criminality involving the ANC elite has hollowed out every state institution. The rot is so deep, the stakes so high for the criminals, we should accept that the best we can hope for in the immediate future is that we’ll eventually have more competent crooks leeching off our state-owned entities — parasites that don’t kill the host. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Cyril Ramaphosa’s willingness to abandon De Ruyter to the wolves was yet another reminder that the president puts party interests above national priorities, even during the greatest crisis of the democratic era. Despite his objectively much-strengthened position following the December leadership conference, there was no rebuke of Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe when he accused De Ruyter of “treason” for implementing load shedding. Instead, Ramaphosa has stated that following a conference resolution, Mantashe’s department will take charge of Eskom.

Ramaphosa’s diehard fans trust that this is a canny, not craven, manoeuvre. That in his imminent Cabinet reshuffle, the president will axe the useless and compromised Mantashe, to replace him with a competent and credible technocrat. Someone who can handle what is, for the moment, possibly the most important ministerial portfolio.

Of course, it’s not as if Ramaphosa needs ammunition to justify the firing of Mantashe. The sole reason for his salience in Ramaphosa’s team is that Mantashe turned his back on the disgraced Jacob Zuma, to throw his substantial political weight (he is also party chair) behind the president.  Ramaphosa needs him.

In a belligerent interview this week with News24’s Kyle Cowan, Mantashe doubled down on his accusations of treason by De Ruyter, saying that these were “factual statements based on examples from other countries, such as Sri Lanka”. 

Supporters of opposition parties wanted load shedding to continue in order to “gain power”, Mantashe said. “If you allow Stage 6 load shedding to continue, you are pitting society against the state. Therefore, you [are] agitating for the overthrow of the state.

"And I can tell you now, if this thing persists … it is going to be a major factor in the 2024 elections. And I know that many of the supporters of some opposition parties wish that it persists because it will give them power.”

Mantashe went further, to ascribe criticism of the ANC to anti-black racism. “Now, I always accuse some of the people of always looking for Bantu to blame, the Bantu to blame and criticise.” 

There was also a veiled warning to Ramaphosa over the composition of the new Cabinet and who would control Eskom: “I can tell you now, Eskom has not been given to me by the president. But I was part of the conference. I know the feeling of delegates of the ANC.”

He was, said Mantashe, aware of the “agitation of liberal analysts and journalists” against this. “So that puts the president in a very awkward situation because he must choose between the liberals and the delegates of the ANC.” 

The effects of the eventual Cabinet reshuffle may turn out to be more symbolic than immediate. While it would be faintly reassuring to discover — with the exit, in addition to Mantashe, of Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, Cooperative Governance and Tradition Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and Police Minister Bheki Cele — that the president does indeed have a spinal column, South Africa faces a cascade of crises that the ANC doesn’t remotely have the ability to address.

Ramaphosa’s lack of urgency in reshuffling his Cabinet may indicate that he will continue his strategy of playing for time. The goal now is to keep the party unified. This means minimising internal party conflict by tolerating the corruption of the ANC robber barons who support him, while letting the clock wind down to next year’s general election.

In such a scenario, the only imperative with Eskom is to throw whatever money is necessary to keep it limping along for another 13 months or so. Secure the diesel, hitch up the Karpower ships, and parachute in the Cubans, the ANC’s favourite alternative to local expertise of the wrong hue or political affiliation. Once the ANC has secured, by hook or by crook, its 2024 electoral majority, it’ll worry about paying the substantial costs, both financial and in terms of infrastructure run into the ground.

The wild card is whether the public can be placated that long. There has been a palpable groundswell of fury over Eskom, which this week exploded into action after the regulator decided to grant Eskom a nearly 19% tariff increase for 2023, with another almost 13% to follow in April next year. 

The result has been half a dozen threatened legal actions against the regulator and Eskom, initiated seemingly spontaneously by a motley array of opposition politicians, trade unions, and civil society organisations. This is likely to largely be a waste of time. 

While those suits challenging the price increase — as well as the Democratic Alliance’s High Court hearing next week, in which it will argue that the abolishment of cadre deployment is a prerequisite to ending load shedding and the collapse of state institutions — conceivably have some legal merit, the others are long shots. No court can, King Canute-like, command Eskom to end load shedding or stop power outages, as the applicants are demanding. 

Similarly Quixotic and uniquely South African are union calls, endorsed by a variety of radical community organisations, for “rolling mass action” that will culminate in a “#NationalShutDown”. For crying out aloud, we already have our national shutdown, half a dozen times a day.

As the ANC tries desperately to postpone Eskom’s total implosion until after the general election, it’s drawing straight from the playbook of the old National Party to contain the crisis. Circle the wagons and blame malevolent but vague forces. It’s all the fault of foreign foes and local agitators. 

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor last week said that load shedding was “an oppositional attack on SA.com”, while Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana described the escalating crises at Eskom as “inexplicable”. This week, ANC MPs reportedly accused Eskom in a meeting of “sabotaging” the state.

That Pandor and Godongwana, two of the more rational and competent ministers, are chanting the Mantashe mantra of deflection and abuse, is worrying. It’s another sign that Ramaphosa’s administration has no coherent plan but to dig in and hope for a miracle before the curtain finally falls.

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