Entertainment

Adriaan Roets
7 minute read
9 Nov 2015
4:36 pm

James-Brent Styan: Eskom’s darkest secrets revealed

Adriaan Roets

Get to know the energy crisis from the front-line with this tell-all book.

Unlike a lot of South Africans who knit their brows and shake their heads when discussing power utility Eskom, James-Brent Styan gets more animated on the topic.

Styan is the author of the paramount account of South Africa’s energy crisis Blackout: The Eskom Crisis, which means he’s got a lot to say. Styan has had a successful career as journalist and his name is synonymous with news that made South Africans pay attention.

His last few years as a journalist were spent in parliament, where he had access to politicians, ministers and a wealth of stories to feed newspapers. He has since left the newsroom to follow a career in public service at the Western Cape government, where he believes he is changing people’s lives.

“I miss journalism every day. But I am never sorry for moving on. I now work for a brilliant man trying to change people’s lives for the better,” Styan says after a series of book launches. Styan traces the biggest mistake by government to 1998, when a warning that South Africa will run out of power was ignored.

“The 1998 Energy White paper stated the country would run out of electricity by 2007 if new power stations are not built.

“In January 2008, when we were hit out of the blue by load shedding, I realised it was serious. But at that stage it seemed like the situation was under control and we would be able to turn things around quickly.

“When the first deadlines on the build programme were missed and the CEO and board shuffling at Eskom started, I became worried,” says Styan.

In between airing concerns, Styan manages to pat Eskom on the back on paper. He praises the energy provider for reinstating the Komati, Grootvlei and Camden power stations – engineering marvels, according to him.

While it’s easy to assume Blackout: The Eskom Crisis is all doom and gloom, Styan thinks the possibility of a complete blackout is unlikely, although load shedding might be rolled out more vigorously to ensure there is no national blackout.

“The book was not written – and is not intended – to lambaste anyone,” says Styan. “It is an honest attempt at writing an unbiased, balanced and informed account of South Africa’s electricity situation and the real challenges we have.”

And it has paid off: Styan has already received the nod from a cabinet minister, who told him the book isn’t something you can easily put down.

More answers from Styan

  • Do you ever miss the newsroom? 

I miss journalism every day. But I am never sorry for moving on. Journalism was very good to me and can be the best job in the world. But I now work for a brilliant man trying to change people’s lives for the better and that is somewhere I want to be right now.

  • You’ve been compiling information and documents on Eskom over a few years, at which point did you realise SA is heading toward an energy crisis?

In January 2008 when we were hit out the blue by load shedding, I realised this was serious. But at that stage it seemed like the situation was under control and we would be able to turn things around quickly. When the first deadlines on the build program were missed and the CEO and board shuffling at Eskom started happening, I became really worried

  • Obviously as a journalist you’re objective – but as an author you have the opportunity to be more critical and opinionated. Do you think there are people or government departments you lambast in the book?

The book was not written – and is not intended – to lambast anyone. It is an honest attempt at writing an unbiased, balanced and informed account of South Africa’s electricity situation and the real challenges we have. If some toes are stepped on then that is simply due to the nature of the particular situation or event being described.

  • You mentioned that getting out of the newsroom and working for the Western Cape government afforded you time to sit down and write. How much time did you spend every week write Blackout?

Being a journalist there are no office hours and it very difficult to know when and for how long you will be able to be at home. Working for government one has more fixed timelines and so it is easier to schedule times at home to write something like the Eskom book. My schedule was more or less as follows: I go to work at 07h00-16h00. I would get home by 17h00 and go to the gym. Then I would have dinner with my beautiful and amazing wife. From 8pm-11pm and over weekends from 8am- 13h00pm I would write. This proved to be the best way to do the writing.

  • The whole energy crises gets very technical, how did you condense those facts and figures to ensure the average South African can understand what’s going on?

I always believed when writing you must write something you like to read. If I got bored or didn’t understand the complex issues, the chances are many readers would have the same experience. I also had some proofreading friends and family who helped me keep it straight and simple with a little colour here and there.

  • What has been, in your opinion, the biggest mistake any minister, government department etc. made in the energy crisis?

Ignoring the 1998 Energy White paper that stated the country would run out of electricity by 2007 if new power stations are not built. This happened exactly as forewarned in November 2007.

  • What has been the biggest success so far (in terms of rectifying the current situation?

Bringing three mothballed power stations – Komati/Grootvlei and Camden – back to life has been an engineering marvel and would be the greatest achievement to date.

  • Many of your peers have also written on topics they followed as journalists. Did you ask for advice at any point?

I spoke to one or two journalists who have written books and they were a big help in motivating me to get going.

  • Did you ever face resistance from Eskom or government departments when you started asking questions?

I can honestly say the answer is no. Sometimes the answers have been evasive and sometimes there have been no answer but I have never faced resistance, in fact quite the opposite, something I am most thankful for to all the individuals involved.

  • You’ve had a busy few weeks promoting the book, what has been your proudest moment so far?

There have been three really proud moments. The first was holding the first copy of the book in my hands. The second was sharing this whole event in my life with my family who have all been so supportive and finally getting a call from a national cabinet minister who claimed the book was ‘unputdownable’ and thanked me for what I’ve done. That was a wonderful moment. It was what I hoped to achieve – to get the conversation on our energy situation moving forward with some insight and fresh ideas on the matter.

  • Has social media helped you promote the book?

I believe it has been a big help, but additionally the publishers, Jonathan Ball, have done a tremendous amount of excellent work to promote the book.

  • What other information was not included in the book?

I didn’t want the book to be 1000 pages so I kept it around 65 000 words. I also wanted the book to be exciting and a good read and not boring and too complex. This means that a lot of the more technical details and long elaborate interviews and quotes didn’t make the book. Also some more personal anecdotes of my time covering Eskom ended in the bin.