If electricity is the lifeblood of a modern economy, South Africa is bleeding to death.
For the ANC, this week must have been the most humiliating yet. It was forced to publicly concede the country faced an unprecedented crisis, caused partly by saboteurs within the ranks of its own party; that it had underestimated the extent of the problem; and that it had no idea of when it might end.
However, the government had, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said, appointed former Eskom engineers to investigate and report back urgently. He forgot to mention these investigative teams comprise many white engineers who were, years back, forced out.
One can understand his reticence. The economic markers of failed African states are imprinted on all of us: crumbling infrastructure and, most dramatically, electricity supply. The scathing observation “They can’t even keep the lights on”, is a favoured phrase in the lexicon of every racist.
And now it’s proved true. How humiliating.
Especially since it is unnecessary. It’s not because of some kind of racial flaw that SA can’t keep the power flowing. It’s because the government is mind-bogglingly incompetent.
It’s about ANC hubris, as former president Thabo Mbeki admitted in 2007 when he apologised for the government ditching the longterm Eskom strategy put together during the years of the National Party government.
It’s about ANC-condoned corruption. The plundering of state-owned entities accelerated during Jacob Zuma’s presidential tenure, but that 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, they’re unproductive and they cannot be fired or retrenched without violent industrial action, during which they sabotage generation equipment.
These are the same unions that have for years prevented alternative power producers from getting a foothold. The same unions that, like Mafia bosses, 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 uncorrected.
It’s about the ANC pandering to its voting constituency. Many township dwellers have for years not paid for electricity and then there’s the R20 billion of power stolen annually through illegal connections. Despite Soweto’s electricity debt being written off twice, it currently owes Eskom R17 billion, 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 six public enterprises ministers and seven energy ministers.
Gordhan’s briefing was honest but surreal, coming from a senior minister in the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa – 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.
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 Metrorail commute turned into an ordeal. It took three hours; the loos were blocked; the locomotive broke; and the train driver was struck by a stone.
Just another day, as experienced by the voting fodder, although Ramaphosa’s cavalcade didn’t encounter any load shedding. Damn.