The Eskom wreckage

Andrew Donaldson on the Times of London's struggle to grasp the nature and magnitude of the crisis in SA


ON Tuesday The Times of London reported on the load shedding. South Africa, it said, is in the grip of “an unprecedented power crisis after record rolling blackouts were announced to prevent a total collapse of its decrepit energy grid”.

Businesses and households across the country were “plunged into darkness and confusion” when Eskom lost more than a quarter of its generating capacity was forced to remove an unprecedented 6 000 megawatts of demand from the grid, its biggest planned power cut in more than a decade.

“Shoring up the beleaguered utility,” the newspaper noted, “is the most pressing crisis facing President Ramaphosa’s government, which is struggling to overhaul a string of state-owned companies that were battered by mismanagement under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.”

Mismanagement? Hmmm…

Perhaps it is editorial policy at The Times that, as a newspaper of record, their reports must be couched in language of a certain detachment — cool reserve and considered distance, if you will — but this is so weaselly-worded and misleading that it’s practically fake news. 

What has happened is not “mismanagement”. That at least suggests a semblance of organisational structure or operational systems which have then somehow been misused. Procedural mishaps. That sort of thing.


No, what has gone down at Eskom and other SOEs is that they have been utterly destroyed, eviscerated by ravening criminals. There is frankly very little here to “overhaul”. All have been reduced to wreckage in the nihilistic free-for-alls that have left once-powerful entities like the railways, SAA and the national broadcaster little more than broken shells. 

It also seems ludicrous that a distinction be drawn between the Zuma and Ramaphosa administrations, as if Cyril the Saviour had suddenly turned up in our midst out of nowhere with a team of principled and skilled civil servants, all riding magic unicorns. 

The truth is that he was very much a part of Accused Number One’s government during the years they all threw truckloads of money at one another. What was now different, however, was that the money was running out — and that something had to be done about this. 

And so the president set forth on missions to hunt down more tom.

He was not altogether unsuccessful in this. Buoyed by post-Zuma woo-woo and all that Ramaphoric guff of new dawns, there came from the north some actual money. It was reported, for example, that foreign direct investment had jumped to a five-year high in 2018, to R70.7 billion from R26.8 billion in 2017. True, this was not quite five percent of the $100 billion that Squirrel had wanted to attract over a five-year period, but it was a start. 

And there were further pledges of investment — including, significantly, tons of bucks from Beijing to shovel into the dank, apparently bottomless pit that is Eskom. 

Except of course it never came. 

In April this year the finance minister, Tito Mboweni, took time out from social media to inform Parliament that he had been forced to authorise an emergency R5-billion Eskom bailout after a $500-million tranche of a $2.5-billion loan from the state-owned China Development Bank failed to materialise.

The bank, Mboweni said, “was unfortunately unable to timeously execute this planned drawdown due to its central bank exchange control requirements...this resulted in Eskom experiencing liquidity challenges”. What this means, in normal language, is that the Chinese don’t throw money away.

At the time, readers will recall, Eskom was reportedly chugging away on diesel to keep the lights on. Western Cape premier Alan Winde, then the MEC for agriculture, economic development and tourism, estimated that it was costing R6.3 million an hour to run diesel turbine generators such as the Ankerlig power station in Atlantis. They may as well have been burning money.

All this, mind you, a few weeks before the May 8 election. 

In the normal course of events you’d expect a catastrophe of this magnitude to be disastrous for a governing party. But the South African electorate doesn’t do “normal” and, for reasons that could be put down to historic sentimentality, is hardwired to perpetually vote against their own interests — even in the dark. 

Universal suffrage is a cherished democratic principle and it is perhaps churlish to suggest that this right is squandered through lemming-like behaviour at the polls. That would insult the little rodents.

But, for God’s sake, people, even the government knows the government is crap. 

It knows this because in September 2013, the then minister in the Presidency, Collins Chabane, after dabbling in the dark arts of the corporate sector, launched the government’s Management Performance Assessment Tool. It was officially described as an “early warning system” to identify management weaknesses which may then be remedied in good time.

And the early warnings were certainly dire. In its first results, the MPAT revealed that legislative compliance was routinely flouted in nearly all government departments and four out of five failed to implement service delivery improvements. Close on two-thirds had no fraud prevention measures in place. Very little changed in the year that followed. 

When Chabane perished in a motor accident in March 2015, his successor in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, let this performance assessment business die a quiet death. Say what you will about the ANC, but they have feelings too. It must have been difficult, even as the state capture project rolled into overdrive, to have been so harshly judged by themselves. It is one thing for civil society to say you’re rubbish, but your own comrades? It’s best not to even go there.

And so there was a bitter edge to the jokes here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) about Cleopatra and the Queen of Denial after we learnt that the president had cut short a trip to Egypt to fly home and tell reporters some bilge about the sabotage of a boiler control panel at the Tutuka power station being partly responsible for the unprecedented stage six load-shedding.

“Investigations are under way,” Rameses said, “and I’ve urged management to speed up those investigations so that those who are found to have been participated in this act of sabotage are held to account.” 

This was not the first time we’d been told of such things. 

In February 2006, the then public enterprises minister, Alec “Screw Loose” Erwin, claimed the Koeberg power station had been sabotaged with a bolt. This was not the case, and a week later a furiously spinning Erwin was claiming he did not use the term “sabotage” but rather that “human instrumentality” was likely to have been responsible for what now seems a rather mild power failure.

“This grotesque phrase,” the late Robert Kirby noted, “is of Erwin’s invention, thought up in panic as an inane substitute for the word ‘sabotage’, which, despite his later denials, he had used to explain the damage to the generator at Koeberg.”

Back to the present, though, and the president may be pleased there has been some investigating at Tutuka. The so-called sabotage, it was found, could well have been an accident. More importantly, this incident had absolutely nothing to do with the blackouts — as it had happened the week before.

Meanwhile, we know that Gwede Mantashe, the mineral resources and energy minister, is in no way responsible for any of this. He has said so himself.

It was, he told reporters on Tuesday, the public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan’s baby. 

“To accuse me of stage six when Eskom is in another ministry,” he said, “that in itself is just opportunist[ic]. I am not the minister responsible for Eskom. I must be allowed to do my work within my responsibility, complement the work that is done in [the] public enterprise [portfolio].”

Mantashe is not alone in this. The Economic Freedom Fighters agree with him, and claim that sabotage is indeed afoot — as part of a plot by the Ramaphosa administration to deliberately hobble Eskom so that it may be unbundled and sold off to the “capitalist establishment”. 

According to a report in the Sunday Independent, this plot, as plots go, is very ambitious — and there have been dark insinuations of the Buffalo doing the bidding of “the mining energy complex”, a group of powerful and wealthy families, the newspaper said, “including the Oppenheimers and the Ruperts”.

In a nutshell, then, Ramaphosa is working with “outsiders” to collapse the ANC by privatising everything. Not just Eskom. (Oh, and more heinously, the president wants to destroy Iqbal Surve’s Independent Media and then take control of the press to drive a single and positive narrative about the country and its leaders.) 

It’s nonsense, of course. As we all know, Squirrel doesn’t have to work with any “outsiders” to collapse the ANC. The party has mastered the art of mismanaging itself. They are the master saboteurs.