Stage 6 and the crisis of the central state

RW Johnson says the recent load-shedding has thrown matters into sharp relief

The power crisis has thrown several things into sharp relief. For once South Africans have not been totally pre-occupied and held back by feelings about the past, about apartheid, a historical sense of guilt and grievance and everything else since Jan van Riebeeck. There’s nothing like Stage 6 power cuts to focus you on the here and now and the extremely sharp question of who is responsible for this situation. Public opinion among all races is in no mood to be indulgent: it wants answers and it wants action.

The ANC and the government are extremely uncomfortable with any suggestion that twenty-five years in power means that they must be responsible for what has happened. Indeed, the situation highlights two very typical ANC traits. Throughout their period in opposition the ANC took the view that the whites, apartheid, racism, oppression etc were responsible for everything.

Even when the party took violent action it often justified it in a “see what you’ve made me do now” fashion. This evasion of responsibility also fed through into a general lack of consequences. When something went wrong it was never a mistake which was someone’s fault. It was, rather, “a problem which must be addressed’ or simply a challenge which people must be encouraged to rise to. So nobody did anything.

Secondly, whenever problems arose or new events occurred, the ANC would caucus and then come out with a new “line” about that subject. Once such a decision or “line” had been reached, the party would then feel that that matter had been dealt with. One passed a resolution, required adherence to it and that was that.

It has been the same again now. Only a fortnight ago we were solemnly promised that there would be no power cuts before Christmas. When the power cuts happened all the same no one in government had anything to say. Even when Senzo Mchunu was asked whether cabinet ministers like himself also suffered power cuts, he was unwilling to answer. (The truthful answer is, of course, that great care is taken to exempt the President and his ministers from such cuts.)

As public indignation mounted Pravin Gordhan, the minister for public enterprises, tried to console the public that everything would get sorted out “in a year or two”. Given that the power cuts started in 2007 and that the government has already had twelve years to sort them out, this verged on effrontery. Gordhan’s stock is rapidly fading, the times they are a-changing.

The buck was quickly passed to Ramaphosa and, not for the first time, he had to be yanked back from his foreign travels in order to give the impression that someone was in charge. An announcement was then made that the ANC had ordered all its deployees in the power generation sector to ensure that load-shedding should stop right away, “once and for all”. The resolution has thus been passed, the order has been given and that deals with that. We were also told that the ANC, in its haste to pass the buck, was very angry with the Eskom board.

Ramaphosa equally swiftly tried to pass the buck by alleging that the load-shedding had been caused by sabotage, thus causing the loss of 2,000 megawatts. There were two problems with this. First, Stage 6 cuts had been caused by a loss of 6,000 megawatts so even if the President was right, this only accounted for one third of the problem.

Secondly, the President was not right. It turned out that the sabotage he had described was technically impossible and thus hadn’t happened. Chess players, of course, will recognize the classic move known as the Alec Erwin Paranoid Pawn. An announcement was then made that on December 11 there would be no power cuts at all. This was a purely political pronouncement: power cuts followed immediately.

The President also announced that all leave for Eskom managers and executives was cancelled, tut-tutted that they hadn’t done enough maintenance and promised the country that at least there wouldn’t be any power cuts during the Christmas season. The problem with this is that in the past (for example during the World Cup) it was the government itself which forbade the carrying out of maintenance. The reason was exactly the same short term political imperative that is driving Ramaphosa now.

Meanwhile the Western Cape premier, Alan Winde, and the DA leader, John Steenhuisen, had indignantly brought up the fact that no less than seventeen applications to use independently provided (renewable) power had been sitting for some time on Gwede Mantashe’s desk and that he, the minister for energy, was refusing to make a decision. Mantashe immediately disclaimed all responsibility.

Of course, this is feckless behaviour. After perhaps ten years of skimping on maintenance it is ridiculous to imagine that short terms solutions can be found simply by ordering them or by taking cosmetic measures to cancel leave (as if Eskom wasn’t overmanned in the first place). And there is really no point in treating cabinet ministers like Mantashe as serious people. Not long ago, after all, he was trying to bully the banks to open accounts for the Guptas. Then he went to Australia to boast about our precious reserves of an entirely fictitious mineral. He followed that up by boasting of having bribed two journalists. When this created waves he hurriedly backtracked and denied his earlier statement. Which is to say, either his first or his second statement must have been a lie.

Quite a few other ministers are no better than Mantashe. Why is this so? The reason seems to lie in the complete failure of the ANC elite to renew itself. After all, what do Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma and Ramaphosa have in common? The answer is that they were all politically prominent well before 1990. Zimbabwe, similarly, even after thirty-nine years of independence, has not got beyond the liberation generation of Mugabe and Mnangagwa. The problem seems generic to African nationalism.

It is all rather reminiscent of the frozen gerontocracy of the Soviet Union. Stalin, after all, was in at the start with Lenin. Khruschev was in Stalin’s government and Brezhnev was in Khruschev’s government. These three men took one all the way to 1982, sixty-five years after the revolution. When at last a real “new man” took over (Gorbachev) the system came crashing down. Until then it was commonly asked “Why are there so many octogenarians in the Politburo?” To which the answer was, “Because the nonagenarians keep dying off”.

This failure of the ANC to renew itself is, of course, manifest too in the person of Ramaphosa. Zuma and Magashule would like to have him thrown out but they have no candidate to put up against him. After twenty-five years in power not a single leading figure has come up through the ANC, a classic sign of morbidity. True, Lindiwe Sisulu has presidential ambitions but, rather like Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya, these depend entirely on her dynastic connection to another “great” of the liberation generation.

The current crisis of Eskom is only part of a more general crisis of the centralized state. Almost everything under the charge of that state is collapsing. The airline has pretty much gone, the railways are under administration, water, electricity, the road accident fund, PetroSA, the state information technology agency and Statistics SA are all on their knees. The list is actually much longer but, like an iceberg, is mainly hidden from view.

When discussion gets this far there is often talk of a taxpayers’ strike. This is, though, harder than it sounds. To be sure, if a hundred thousand taxpayers all announced together that they wouldn’t pay tax, the state would be powerless. But in practice most people make such decisions individually. This is called tax evasion and it is individually punished.

The crisis of the central state is different precisely because those in charge of it are manifestly incapable of running it and the results are increasingly obvious to everybody. Interestingly, Africans are far less abashed than whites in saying that things were better under white rule. This is important for the state lacks almost all credibility and trust, so that its legitimacy is now very fragile.

In such a situation can it really be long before the Western Cape or some other province or one of the metropoles simply announces that it is making its own arrangements to buy power from independent power producers, with or without government permission? Of course, this would be excused by pointing to Mantashe’s studied indecision and to the fact that such a move would benefit other parts of the country by lessening the demand on Eskom, but it would still be an unmistakeable challenge to central power. Yet would either Mantashe or Ramaphosa really dare to say no?

How could they possibly defend doing so if province X or metropole Y is going to the wall through lack of electricity? There is no doubt, after all, that such a move would be hugely popular among all races in whichever city or province took the initiative. Protracted power failures produce a tidal wave of popular demand for alternative sources of energy, which no politician will wish to resist.

It hardly matters which city or province makes the first move because there would be ineluctable pressure for all the others to follow. And once that bridge had been crossed similar pressure would build for cities and provinces to fend for themselves in other spheres too. The result would be a sort of uncontrollable slide towards federalism, with the crucial difference that a lot of the decentralised power would flow to the cities rather than the provinces.

It is worth noting that it would probably not be difficult for e.g. Cape Town or the Western Cape (or others) to get World Bank money for a transition to renewable power with its huge savings on carbon emissions. This is, indeed, another fatal weakness of the government’s management. Just as the government spent a fortune extending phone lines into rural areas when it would have been far cheaper simply to give cell phones to rural people, so the option for monstrous new coal-fired power stations now looks like a complete anachronism.

If this slide towards federalism were to happen – and perhaps even if it didn’t - Eskom would find itself increasingly deserted by its customers. Indeed, this process is already well under way as more and more individuals and businesses move to renewable power. The central state would then be left with responsibility for an ultimately bankrupt Eskom and, probably, quite a few more bankrupt SOEs as well.

This story ends inevitably in a bankrupt central state with the big question being what happens to its bad debts. Doubtless, city and provincial electorates would bitterly resist the idea of picking up the tab for what they would see as the fruits of government corruption and incompetence. Whichever way that argument went the larger irony would be that the ANC, having furiously resisted a stronger form of federalism, would find that its own failings had resulted in exactly that.

RW Johnson