Twenty-five years ago the African National Congress (ANC) inherited from the practitioners of colonialism and apartheid one of the most admired public utilities in the world. They proceeded to give it a hefty dose of radical economic transformation. The result is the Eskom of today, which is trying to entice back from Tunisia and elsewhere some of the "top engineers" who left during what the minister of public enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, likes to call the "period of corruption and state capture".
He finds it "fascinating" how many former Eskom engineers, having been "pushed out" by "state capture", are now in the Philippines or Indonesia and many other countries.
Blaming a "period of corruption and state capture" conveniently enables Eskom's problems to be passed off as historical aberrations that are now going to be rectified. But this is only half the story. Eskom was in trouble before "corruption and state capture" kicked in. Mr Gordhan says South Africa is legitimately asking "why is this happening?" His unenlightening answer is "wrong choices and wrong designs". He does not tell us who got everything wrong. Eskom itself provides a whole bunch of technical reasons for the major blackouts last week.
Mr Gordhan promises that there will be litigation against those responsible for them. It would be nice to see the culprits punished, whether in the public or the private sector. But blackouts date back to 2008, and if Mr Gordhan and his party really want to know who is responsible, they need only look in the mirror. For there can be no doubt that incessant interference by ignoramus ministers, cadre deployment, affirmative action, and racial procurement policies were also part of the transformative dose to which Eskom has long been subjected.
According to Mr Gordhan, loss of senior skills at Eskom was "not a small matter". Now he tells us. Anyone paying attention knew years ago that Eskom was "pushing out" engineers and other people on racial grounds. In doing so it was faithfully following ANC policy and legislation. Like other state-owned enterprises, Eskom was further regarded as a place of sheltered employment, one result being more and more people who are less and less productive.
The normally complacent Cyril Ramaphosa now proclaims himself shocked and "quite angry" at the state of Eskom. Perhaps he picked up this line from the corrupt police chief in Casablanca who declared himself "shocked" at all the gambling going on in Rick's Café Americain.
Plausible suggestions have been made that last week's blackouts were in part the result of sabotage by unions and/or managers determined to warn Mr Ramaphosa against interfering with their entrenched positions and lucrative jobs at Eskom. But the ANC has done to South Africa's intelligence services what it has done to Eskom, so the government does not have the capacity to investigate whether there is any truth in these suggestions. And even if it could turn up sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution, there is no telling when the National Prosecuting Authority will be restored to the level of competence needed to bring a successful case.
"If we do not understand the problem, we are not going to get anywhere near the solutions," says Mr Gordhan with reference to Eskom. The real problem – as he may or may not be willing to recognise – is the ANC's overarching ideology of radical economic transformation as a means of bringing about its national democratic revolution. Among other things, this means more and more state control.
Commitment to this ideological objective helps to explain why the ANC, despite its track record of imposing disastrous policies, is still determined to implement what may turn out to be one of its most destructive policies yet. Both in his recent state-of-the-nation address and in a speech delivered on his behalf a few days later, Mr Ramaphosa announced that legislation to implement national health insurance (NHI) would soon be ready for submission to Parliament.
NHI entails the deliberate destruction of the private medical aid industry, and is also calculated to destroy private medical care more widely. NHI will certainly cause an exodus of medical professionals. Perhaps one day some future health minister will find it "fascinating" how many South African doctors are working in the Philippines, or Tunisia, or Indonesia. He too may then try and entice some of them back to fix what his party has wrecked. Just as Zimbabwe is now trying to do with white farmers.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.