A crisis of power

We seem to be in the dark - literally and figuratively. It's been a pretty bad week for Eskom and South Africans trying to get on with their daily business. Typically though we have whinged and moaned, then shrugged it off and soldiered on. Despite our seemingly endless ability to deal with the consequences of poor governance, the cost to the economy will be felt. As many small businesses, unable to afford generators have had to shut down up to three times a day this week, the repercussions have already been felt in the dip in the rand.

In addition, there are stories a-plenty of small towns around the country which have battled with power cuts for up to seven days at the rate of five to eight hours a day.

One could go on and on about the incompetence of Eskom, about the failure of successive governments (dating back to the 1970s) to deal with the power crisis, of the severe delays in the building of power stations at Medupi and Khusile (and the ruling ANC's stake in Hitachi which was supplying boilers to these power stations - an untenable conflict of interest which was brought to a halt when the ANC sold its stake in Hitachi earlier this year) and the traffic grid-lock and unpredictability of power supply which we now all live with, but the bottom line is that there is now no quick fix to the problem.

The reality is that power stations take years to build and it seems that we are in a situation where we can be thankful that there is no national black-out as Eskom struggles to maintain its creaky infrastructure. That's the pragmatic approach presumably.

At some point though those in power (pardon the pun) might wish to communicate better with us and show that they are aware of the severity of the crisis? Recently, the already long-suffering minister of Public Enterprises, Lynne Brown delivered a cogent speech in Parliament setting out our electricity challenges. Of course she was hoping against hope that in the days immediately following her speech that she would not be called to explain stage 3 load-shedding and its disastrous effects. The speech set out what we already know - please be patient, we are working on the problem.

On Monday Brown seemed to take a harder stance, saying we are not in the worse-case scenario yet because there was no national black-out. A relief, indeed?

Yet, one would imagine that during this national power crisis (and that is what it is, a crisis), we would get more than Lynne Brown and Eskom's Andrew Etzinger. Finally on Monday Eskom's CEO Tshediso Matona apologised to the country and assured us that Medupi and Khusile would be partly functional in 18 to 24 months' time. So, now we have heard from Eskom but what about the bigger political picture here? What do other ministers in Cabinet who are affected by this crisis, at say, Trade and Industry and Economic Development?

And where is the President in all of this? We know Zuma was in the midst of a state visit to China on the special invitation of Xi Jinping to, inter alia, discuss trade, Ebola and infrastructure. No amount of trade is going to help us if we cannot keep the lights on. That much is obvious. Forget the National Development Plan and infrastructure development if your power supply is so precarious.

And the Minister of Finance must surely be watching all of this with increasing trepidation ahead of his maiden Budget speech in February?

So, the issue is crisp: we have a crisis which is not going to be solved over-night. Those who run the place need to take responsibility for what is happening. Unfortunately, that is how democratic governance works. Silence is simply not good enough. Citizens should be kept informed and the crisis acknowledged. From the completely unreliable information regarding load-shedding times, Eskom's general communication has been abysmal.

On the bigger issues for the economy and setting out future plans we ought to be hearing from the president himself who should be taking leadership. During his visit to China, Zuma was also awarded an honorary professorship at Tsinghua University. A curious award one might say which Zuma dedicated to Madiba's memory. Of course Madiba's memory would be better-served with principled, transparent leadership which serves the interests of the people and acknowledges a crisis when there is one.

As for the rest of us, year-end resignation seems to be the easiest option right now, but we should be sending messages to a government increasingly unaccountable, that the people won't always be this patient, not in the townships or the suburbs or in the business community. Eventually something will have to give.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).