What the Minister of Electricity is for

RW Johnson on the real role to be played by Kgosientsho Ramokgopa

It is now clear what job of the new Minister of Electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, really is.

To understand this, remember what Andre de Ruyter said. After a full three years in the job as Eskom’s CEO he had formulated a plan to break Eskom down into its constituent parts, fight crime at Eskom and replace coal-fired power stations with renewables. But the problem was that he could not gain political support from Cabinet for the implementation of this plan.

Second, De Ruyter said Eskom had been systematically infiltrated by corrupt individuals and entities. These elements were still there from the Zuma era of state capture. They were completely parasitic, extracting payments for coal, construction and maintenance while they offered nothing in return.

Third, organised crime actually controlled several power stations. One result was intentional malfunction and sabotage.

Finally, there was a great deal of petty crime which effectively enjoyed complete immunity.

That is to say, all four of the points in De Ruyter’s plan involved a struggle against crime. Crime was sucking R1 billion a month out of Eskom and unless it was tackled, the problems at Eskom could not be overcome.

As we know, De Ruyter was instantly fired when he said this and added that two ANC ministers were involved with the criminal syndicates bleeding Eskom. As Fikile Mbabula’s reaction showed, De Ruyter’s real sin was to suggest that ANC corruption – and the lack of political support for his reform programme - was fundamental to Eskom’s problems.

Contrast that with Ramokgopa. He has been in the job only a week but every day so far he has given encouraging speeches or interviews suggesting that Eskom’s problems will soon be dealt with.

Although he has yet to familarise himself with Eskom’s workings he is already confident. “We are in this together. The problems with load-shedding will be resolved”, he told Kusile workers on March 22. “We have committed men and women with skills at Eskom.”

He added that “The problems and challenges we have here (at Kusile) are technical problems. They have nothing to do with so-called corruption.” He also referred to “alleged corruption”. The government, he said, “would assist where possible to end load-shedding”.

If we go back to what De Ruyter said, we see that he pointed out that “There was substantial manipulation of design criteria (at Kusile) in order to ensure that Hitachi got that tender”. And the problem was that the exhaust gas temperature from the boiler supplied by Hitachi was far too high so that when Kusile was run at anything near capacity, it broke down. “If the contract had been awarded correctly, without corruption, we would not have the severity of load-shedding that we have right now”, De Ruyter said. That is to say, there was a technical problem but the root of that was corruption.

Ramokgopa carefully did not engage with that point. Nor did he reflect on the fact that at the time that the Eskom contract was awarded to Hitachi the chairman of the Eskom board was Mohamed Valli Moosa, who was also on the ANC’s fund-raising committee – an outrageous conflict of interest. And there is no debate that Chancellor House was set up by the ANC precisely in order to direct revenue flows from SOEs to ANC funds.

In other words we have gone from an Eskom CEO saying that Eskom’s problems cannot be solved unless systemic corruption there is confronted, to being told a week or two later that corruption is only “so-called” and “alleged”. Since Ramokgopa is only beginning to learn how Eskom works it is quite clear that he is committed before he starts to not finding corruption.

Also note that in De Ruyter’s version the government is stymying efforts at reform by refusing its political backing for De Ruyter’s plan, but in Ramokgopa’s version is it helpfully “assisting to end load-shedding”.

It is also worth noting Ramokgopa’s insistence that Eskom has “men and women with skills”. Yet only a few weeks ago Solidarity offered to make available to Eskom a number of skilled managers who had left Eskom’s employ for one reason or another. This offer was ignored although there is no doubt that Eskom suffered huge losses of skills as experienced engineers and managers were forced out in the cause of “transformation”.

Put all this together and Ramokgopa’s mission is clear. Whatever the facts may be he is clearly there in order to provide a steady series of optimistic bulletins so as to lighten the popular mood of despair about Eskom.

In effect he is working as an ANC activist, not a minister. His job is to get rid of the notion that the ANC is involved with corruption at Eskom, so suggest that the government is doing its best to resolve things and that a happy result is only just over the horizon.

This is also clear from the speeches of Gwede Mantashe (insisting that load-shedding will be over in 6-12 months and of Enoch Godongwana (who told his Davos audience that power cuts would cease in 12-18 months).

In fact, of course, it was Mantashe’s decision to torpedo the renewables industry five years ago that is the major cause of the present situation. But for that decision, De Ruyter said, 98% of the current power cuts could have been avoided. De Ruyter’s putting the blame so centrally and publicly on Mantashe was presumably what provoked Mantashe to accuse De Ruyter of treason.

It is worth remembering Ramaphosa’s promise in 2015 that power-cuts would “soon be a thing of the past” so that in 12-18 months people would forget they had ever happened.

It is clear that Ramaphosa lacked any of the specialist knowledge necessary to make such an authoritative statement. He did so simply because he wanted to lighten the mood and cheer people up. Clearly, this sort of dishonest promising is going to be a key part of ANC campaign strategy leading up to 2024.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with the late Lawrie Schlemmer about fifteen years ago. Lawrie was poring over opinion poll data which showed that ANC voters responded well to promises made to them by ANC politicians even though they agreed that such promises would never be kept. Lawrie had probed such voters, asking why then they had responded favourably to such promises.

Many of them told him that at least such promises showed that the politicians were thinking of voters’ interests and wanted to please them. Lawrie was floored: “so you like being lied to?”, he asked.

In fact, of course, the increasing scepticism, even cynicism, of the electorate is part of the process of democratic maturation. The ANC’s near-collapse in some opinion polls and by-elections suggests that large numbers of voters are either peeling away or at least sinking into abstention.

Jacob Zuma, who once happily said that the ANC would rule “until Jesus comes” is now publicly worried that the party could lose in KwaZulu-Natal. In the end no party can defy gravity. If GDP per capita keeps falling, year in, year out and the ruling party is simply incapable of providing the means to modern urban living, it will lose.

The process of breaking the almost mystical bonds which once bound many African voters to the ANC is, of course, painful. But the real problem is that the ANC is promising that it will turn the current situation around so that in the future there will be adequate water and enough and reliable electricity.

If the party really could achieve such a turnaround, it might have some hope, but there is no reason at all to believe that it has such a capacity.