South Africa’s government is at war. With itself.
It’s a military achievement of sorts. Feuding factions of the African National Congress have sabotaged South Africa’s infrastructure more effectively in the past few years than the ANC’s rather hopeless armed wing managed in four decades of the struggle.
Escalating acts of sabotage at Eskom last week put the country on the brink of stage-six load shedding. Stage six means 10 hours without electricity in every 24-hour cycle.
This narrowly averted meltdown occurred when a pylon was deliberately toppled in an attempt to bring down two coal feeding lines to the Lethabo power station, the most reliable generator in the system. Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter, who always has been reluctant to identify as malicious the growing litany of such incidents affecting the national grid, was forced to change his tune.
“For some time we have had suspicious incidents and I think this is the clearest indication that we have had to date that there are individuals out there who seek to damage the economy by causing very significant and substantial load shedding. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
“Can we cope with a concerted attack … on a number of our key elements of our system simultaneously? I don’t think that is a scenario that we want to contemplate,” he told a media briefing.
South African memories are short. Just two years ago, there were howls of fury and disbelief when, in December 2019, Eskom also had to impose stage-six blackouts — which then were defined as a mere four-and-a-half hours a day — because of the collapse of the national grid.
At the time, President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his customary “shock” at events, and hurried back from a state visit to Egypt, claiming, to widespread derision, that sabotage was the reason for the crisis. Now, it seems he was right, after all.
In response to the latest incident, the University of Stellenbosch’s Bureau of Economic Research has warned against “possible co-ordinated action from former Eskom employees and state capture beneficiaries to destabilise South Africa’s power supply”. “Outside of the electricity sector, the unprecedented theft of cable on strategically important export rail lines and the debilitating actions of the construction mafia are further examples where criminality has become a constraint on economic activity,” it writes in a research note.
“State capture beneficiaries” is a euphemism for the Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ANC, the militant and increasingly bold grouping in July’s violent upheaval— which Ramaphosa termed “an insurrection” — in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. And to call it “criminality” is another understatement of the gravity of the situation.
South Africa is seeing a merging of criminal and political agendas that makes the country vulnerable to a guerilla-style campaign of targeted violence. It would be disastrous if this were allowed to happen but given the lack of leadership and political will in the ANC, it is entirely feasible.
At a practical level, De Ruyter points to the impossibility of policing South Africa’s more than 390,000 kilometres of distribution lines. But that’s only part of the problem.
During the struggle years, blowing up infrastructure like power lines, railroad tracks and rolling stock, roads and bridges proved to be dishearteningly futile for the liberation organisations. There was sufficient surplus capacity in the economy to seamlessly adapt to these puny attempts to create havoc. This infrastructural resilience is why the ANC changed its policy and started targeting people instead.
The fact that today the destruction of a single pylon can potentially cause such havoc, highlights the infrastructural fragility caused by ANC policies and incompetence. Eskom’s ability to produce an abundance of cheap electricity, which was legendary worldwide, has been destroyed as surely as if it had been targeted by an invading army.
In a sense, it has. An invading army of lotus-eaters, concerned with instant gratification and the minimum of work.
A 20-year blueprint to expand production, drawn up during the apartheid years, was discarded in favour of the immediate political benefits accruing from massive social spending. This was a mistake that former president Thabo Mbeki acknowledged as far back as 2007, but the ANC did almost nothing to rectify, aside from appointing in 2015 a so-called “Eskom war room” headed by the most fainthearted general to be found, Cyril Ramaphosa, which predictably did nothing.
Instead, experienced white engineers continued to be retrenched in dogmatic pursuit of filling employment quotas. At Eskom, as with all state owned entities, meeting race, gender and disability targets became at least as important a performance criterion in the eyes of the SOE’s political masters, as was the execution of their primary functions.
It’s such ideological rigidity, as well as the ANC’s poor calibre of leadership and its aversion to allowing the law enforcement apparatus to operate independently, which have combined to create the perfect breeding grounds for lawlessness and, ultimately, revolutionary insurrection.
The South African railway network — once regarded as one of the world’s best — is, in the words of Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, “a broken organisation”. Thousands of kilometres of overhead cables, signalling wires and masts, as well as rail lines and sleepers, have been stolen.
Following the dismissal of irregularly appointed PRASA security guards, two-thirds of Cape Towns commuter stock was destroyed in arson attacks. In a single incident in Bloemfontein last year, 24 carriages were destroyed. To date, only two teenagers have ever been arrested.
Entire railway stations have been dismantled, brick by brick, and carried off, without any arrests. Vandalism and arson cost PRASA, the passenger rail agency, almost a billion rand in damaged infrastructure between 2017 and 2019. No arrests.
The road network is similarly under siege. According to the Road Freight Association (RFA), in 2019 and 2020, more than 1,300 trucks were attacked, damaged and destroyed, with at least 21 drivers or crew killed. There have been no arrests, despite a brace of ministers, including Police Minister Bheki Cele, describing it as a campaign of sabotage.
Since then, in the July unrest alone, 255 trucks were destroyed. The total cost to the freight industry of that week of chaos was R9bn, excluding the value of goods destroyed or looted. No arrests have been made.
In November last year, when I spoke to Gavin Kelly, the CEO of the RFA, he didn’t mince his words: “This is a planned, co-ordinated, destruction of the South African economy. These are co-ordinated military-style attacks.
"They are preceded by ample warnings, with social media calls for action and letters circulated beforehand, inciting violence. The police are not acting on such intelligence ... They are unable or unwilling.”
The July attacks, he told me more recently, followed the same pattern. “This is not the kind of violence that characterises union-employer friction, where things escalate as workers become more gatvol and eventually anger explodes into action. There’s a deeper, darker picture of planned, well-timed strikes that the intelligence agencies are unable to track.”
The slow but sustained organisational and electoral disintegration of the ANC — the party is financially bankrupt and has lost control of key councils and metros, inhibiting its capacity for the future corruption and patronage that keeps it going — will accelerate public violence. The RET, with its paramilitary affiliations, has acted with complete impunity and will become bolder in seeking to impose its corrupt agenda by force.
This week, in KwaZulu-Natal, there were unsettling warnings of renewed public violence from Friday and through the weekend. The police have barricaded themselves in their stations and called on the public to bring 9mm rounds and KFC care parcels.
(Nah, I’m kidding. That was last time. This time, according to official statements, they will be conducting roadblocks and be on “high alert”.)
Whether or not the most recent threatened unrest occurs, it’s clear that Ramaphosa’s government is adrift in dangerous currents. Five months on, the July unrest remains unpunished. Not a single leader has been arrested, despite the ANC having the names of 12 of its members who were allegedly ringleaders.
Gutlessness to radicals is like chum for sharks. It attracts and emboldens.
Anything and everything possible will be done to prevent the slew of new, opposition-led councils from operating. There will be more sabotage, intimidation and violence. Assassination, already widespread within ANC ranks between vying candidates for public office and key jobs, may conceivably be deployed against the “enemy” opposition parties.
Trouble is escalating. Ramaphosa’s overly cautious character and marked lack of success in his previous “war room” deployment doesn’t exactly engender confidence in the government’s commitment or ability to stamp its authority.
It might be time for Ramaphosa to abandon his favourite tactic for dealing with his foes, that of “social compacting”, in favour of Napoleon’s favourite — “a whiff of grapeshot”.
Either way, there’s a rough ride ahead.
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