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By William Saunderson-Meyer


Eskom crisis? What crisis? This is just the way we roll

Describing two decades of ANC government neglect, incompetence and misguided interference at Eskom as a 'crisis', shows a complete misunderstanding of the word.

As load shedding, yet again, hits Stage 6, the South African press is, yet again, filled with warnings about the Eskom crisis. 

What Eskom crisis?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a crisis is a moment of “great danger when problems must be solved”. The Free Dictionary says it’s a “crucial point, involving impending change”. 

The defining aspects of a crisis, then, are that it is sudden, critical and will imminently be resolved.

Also Read: Eskom’s plan to secure 1 000MW proves its executives are ‘the blind leading the blind’

So, it’s somewhat a misnomer to describe two decades of ANC government neglect, incompetence and misguided interference in the running of the national power utility as a “crisis”. More accurate descriptors are “congenital”, “inherent” and “indicative of a terminally dumb electorate”.

Eskom, at the dawn of democracy in 1994, seemed unassailable. Under the Nats, South Africa had the lowest electricity prices in the world and Eskom won regular plaudits for being the best power generator in the world. 

However, in the background, things were falling apart.

A 1998 ANC government White Paper warned that the country would run out of power capacity by 2007 unless major investments were made. In other words, there would be a crisis.

President Thabo Mbeki’s response was one of scepticism and his administration ordered a stop to new builds. At the same time, a big ethnic cleansing of Eskom was embarked upon. Skilled white employees were retrenched by the thousands, to ensure demographic representivity.

By 2008, Eskom was in serious straits and load-shedding and blackouts erupted. This newly-minted Eskom “crisis” made international news for the first time during the 2010 Soccer World Cup, where it was cited as evidence of the country’s steady decline towards Third World status. 

The crises have not gone away ever since, zig-zagging in scale — unless you live in a suburb blessed with ANC big-knob immunity — from being merely inconvenient and irritating, to disastrous and life-changing. 

Also Read: Load shedding: These animals are more equal than others

Over this period, the daily existence of South Africans, as well as their means of earning a living, have been turned upside down. Everything has had to be reconfigured, as best possible, to fit in with Eskom’s daily load-shedding schedules. 

And so, life goes on. People make do with the additional expense of solar panels, generators, inverters, and the cost of replacing blown equipment from electricity surges. Sullen acceptance replaces incandescent rage. 

But while canny officialdom can shape behaviour and blunt resentment, the economic repercussions are more difficult to put a gloss on. It’s estimated that Stage 6 load shedding exacts an economic penalty of R4bn a day on GDP.

At no point during this sorry saga has the ANC been able to bestir itself to make the critical interventions that constitute crisis management. On the contrary, dogma and inertia continue to prevail.

Starting in the Mbeki years, the ANC, as a party, was raking off hundreds of millions annually from questionable construction and procurement contracts. Under his successor, Jacob Zuma, it became a more individualistic free-for-all, with corrupt executives piling in to loot as much as possible as quickly as possible.

The upshot is that Eskom today produces less electricity than it did in 2006, yet it has 15,000 more employees.

According to the World Bank, the utility is overstaffed by 66%. Yet, last week, its chief operating officer, Jan Oberholzer, admitted that Eskom’s staff and contractors lacked the skills to repair and maintain generation infrastructure.

That’s just another Eskom crisis that the government has no intention of addressing.

Last month, Solidarity trade union provided Public Energy Minister Pravin Gordhan with a list of 300 experts, each averaging close to 20 years in the sector and many with international experience, ready and eager to help rescue Eskom.

Also Read: To insist on B-BBEE policies when trying to save Eskom is not clever

However, they were of the wrong complexion. Only 18 have been hired. Instead, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter was instructed to set up a crowd-sourcing platform to draw on a more demographically representative pool of expertise. 

No sense of crisis here.

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