If electricity is the lifeblood of a modern economy, South Africa is bleeding to death.
For the African National Congress, this week might have been the most humiliating in 25 years of government. It was forced to publicly concede that the country faced an unprecedented crisis, caused partly by saboteurs within the ranks of its own governing alliance; that it had completely underestimated the extent of the problem; and that it has no idea of when or how the crisis might be end.
However, the government had, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan told the media briefing, appointed former Eskom engineers to investigate and report back urgently. He neglected to mention that these investigative teams comprise many white engineers who were, years ago, forced out of Eskom because of affirmative action and cadre employment.
One can understand Gordhan's reticence. The economic markers of failed African states are imprinted on all of us. They are crumbling infrastructure — dilapidated buildings, uncollected rubbish heaped waist high next to potholed roads, and unprocessed sewage and industrial effluence discharged into rivers.
But most dramatically it is the erosion of the electricity supply. The scathing observation, “They can’t even keep the lights on,” is a favoured phrase in the lexicon of every racist white headed for the emigration queue.
And now it’s all proved true. How humiliating. Especially since it is unnecessary. It's not because of some kind of innate racial flaw that SA can't keep the power flowing. It's not because there aren’t many clever engineers, managers, and innovators, who are black.
It’s because we have a government that is mind-bogglingly incompetent, yet simultaneously so swathed in ideological arrogance that it has not, until now, deigned to admit its failures. The collapse of Eskom and the SA power grid is the case study that most dramatically illustrates the ANC inability to govern.
Sure, there are other ANC failures — a bloated and sullen public service, collapsing health and education systems, pathetic law enforcement — but none of the others forces itself into the consciousness of most citizens, every day, for periods ranging from two to eight hours.
The spectacle of shoppers throughout the country shuffling along the supermarket aisles, gathering groceries by torchlight, is only part of it. Such load-shedding is, at least, sort of, predictable. More disruptive is the failure of other components in the supply chain that have been poorly maintained and now cannot cope with the huge power variations of the incessant load shedding. When these fail, power can be out for days at a time.
In the past few months substantially more suburban substations have been destroyed because of ANC indolence — unserviced infrastructure expiring in spectacular electrical explosions — than were blown up with ANC limpet mines during two decades of armed “struggle”
It’s about ANC hubris, as former president Thabo Mbeki as much as admitted in 2007 when he apologised for the government ditching the long-term Eskom strategy put together during the years of the National Party government. The ANC had thought there was little to be learnt from apartheid-era dinosaurs, so it nixed their plans and got rid of their managers and engineers.
It’s about ANC-condoned corruption. The plundering of Eskom and other state-owned entities accelerated and may have become particularly brazen during Jacob Zuma’s presidential tenure, but they long preceded him. The ANC’s preferred redistributive strategy has long been theft by the elite, rather than empowerment of the masses.
It’s about the ANC placating its union partners. Eskom has too many workers — 66% too many according to the World Bank — they’re unproductive despite being obscenely overpaid, and they cannot be fired or retrenched without violent industrial action, during which they sabotage generation equipment and are allowed to get away with it.
These are the same unions that have for a dozen years prevented alternative power producers from getting a foothold. The same unions that, like Mafia-bosses, basically controlled every aspect of new-builds like Medupi and Kusile, leading to missed deadlines, massive cost overruns, and shoddy workmanship that to this day remains unremedied.
It’s about the ANC pandering to its voting constituency. Many, if not most, township dwellers have for years not paid for electricity and then there's the R20bn of power stolen annually through illegal connections. Despite Soweto’s electricity debt being written-off twice, it currently owes Eskom R17bn, but has never been cut off.
It’s about ANC incompetence and in-fighting. During the past decade Eskom has had six boards and 10 CEOs, under the oversight of a succession of six Public Enterprises ministers and seven Energy ministers.
Gordhan's briefing was refreshingly honest but nevertheless surreal, coming from a senior minister in the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa. How can a government hope to feign bewildered ignorance of events that are of its own making?
It is, after all, the same Ramaphosa who in 2014 took “personal control” of sorting out the Eskom mess, who now expresses “shock and outrage” at how bad it is. Lord help us, Ramaphosa has recently also taken "personal control" of sorting out the public health system mess.
In all, it has not been a good week for the ANC or the president. To add insult to injury, Ramaphosa’s vote-catching ploy of connecting with the lives lived by ordinary South Africans became only too real.
What was to be a 45-minute, 50km Metrorail commuter journey into Pretoria turned into an embarrassing ordeal. It took three hours; the train was filthy; the loos were blocked; there were signal delays; the locomotive broke; and the train driver was struck by a stone thrown by someone alongside the track.
Just another day, as experienced by the voting fodder, although at least Ramaphosa’s cavalcade didn’t encounter any load shedding. Damn.
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