In office, but out of power

William Saunderson-Meyer says the ANC govt has proved incapable of responding first to insurrection, and now the sabotage of Eskom


State power can be less impressive than it seems. Sometimes, when tested, it is shown to be surprisingly brittle and illusory. 

In tandem with the decline in its electoral fortunes and a president who by nature is cautious to the point of timidity, we are seeing an African National Congress government that is increasingly reluctant or unable to exercise the legitimate security powers upon which depend the survival of South Africa as a functioning, modern state.

Another complicating, compounding factor is the uncomfortable truth those who are literally destroying the infrastructural fabric of the country are disaffected former supporters from the ANC’s biggest political constituency, black Africans. 

It’s one thing for Police Minister Bheki Cele to order the arrest of the bikini-ed blondes on Clifton beach during the lockdown. Quite another for him to respond forcefully against criminality that appears to be fomented by militants within the black nationalist Radical Economic Transformation faction of his own party.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration showed fatal levels of paralysis when the riots broke out in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. For four days the police looked on, from a safe distance, as mobs looted and plundered freely, restrained only by community defence organisations and, eventually, by the taxi organisations miffed by the loss of commuter revenue.

Recent events are a further reminder that the power that this government chooses exercise is acutely limited by political considerations. Last month, an illegal blockade by truck drivers closed the N3, the vital link between the Gauteng economic hub with the country’s major ports at Durban and Richard’s Bay, for four days. A few arrests were made but everyone was subsequently released without charges.

This was no different from last year and the year before, when the same shadowy groups interdicted the same highway with petrol bombs to protest foreign drivers. On both those occasions, the same police minister and the same president huffed and puffed that such economic sabotage was intolerable and would not be tolerated. 

Nothing happened. No arrests. No convictions.

And now, Stage 6 load-shedding, which is to teeter terrifyingly close to a total national blackout. If this were to happen, for technical reasons it would take weeks to restore power generation.

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan ascribed these catastrophic levels of load shedding directly to the sabotage of Eskom facilities. So, too, has Eskom CEO Andre De Ruyter. Over the previous past few months he has on several occasions detailed specific acts of sabotage that wiped out power generation, as they happened. 

It’s been clear from the pattern of the damage that destruction is not only wreaked with the benefit of insider knowledge of the most critical pylons and transformers, but that some of it can only have been carried out by Eskom workers operating on-site — cables cut, switches thrown to trigger generator blowouts.

Despite these Eskom facilities falling under the provisions of the apartheid era’s Key Point legislation, which gives draconian powers to the security services to ensure their safety, there have been no arrests and the sabotage is escalating.

Despite the availability of facial-recognition closed-circuit television and biometric access controls — additional layers of security not available during the apartheid era. Again, there have been no arrests and the sabotage is escalating.

It makes for irresistible and unflattering comparisons. It is a fact that more damage has been done to Eskom’s power grid in the past year by Eskom workers and disgruntled ANC supporters, than all Umkhonto we Sizwe’s soldiers and agents managed in almost 50 years of the Struggle. 

During that period, 25 somewhat ineffectual documented bombings of Eskom pylons took place, for which 29 people were arrested, 14 were charged and 10 were convicted, ultimately serving between five and 15 years in jail. Their disruptions caused not a hiccough to the apartheid economy.

The present government’s impotence, in comparison, is both embarrassing for itself and disastrous for South Africa. Striking Eskom workers, seeking a double-digit wage increase from a bankrupt power utility that is grossly overstaffed, have ignored a court injunction declaring it an illegal strike and launched violent attacks on workers who have tried to continue to work.

At Lethabo, the homes of non-striking workers were petrol bombed, as too the cars of managers and non-striking workers. In many power stations, up to 90% of the staff could not attend to their duties, according to Gordhan, because of intimidation.

The SA Police Service public order units are “monitoring the situation”. That’s political-speak for standing watching the chaos from a safe distance. 

It was left to the Democratic Alliance to state the obvious. On Friday it issued a statement calling upon the National Police Commissioner to “actively take operational command to restore law and order and Eskom power stations”. Until now, the appropriately named Fannie Masemola apparently has been sitting on his, doing sweet nothing.

The president, in contrast, has been decisive in his intervention. No, it wasn’t to order arrests or instruct the National Prosecuting Authority to apply for punitive damages orders against the law-flouting unions. It was to order Eskom to move from a wage freeze to an initial offer of 7%. 

These are unsubtle signs of panic in the presidency. It signals that the government wants, at virtually any financial cost, to end the strike.

Every move it has made, especially since last July’s riots, encourages the perception that it lacks the courage to act against its militant opponents within the ranks of the alliance. This emboldens the saboteurs and bombers, the looters and rioters.

This is a fragile government led by a weak president. The net result is a vulnerable state, teetering towards anarchy.

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