Eskom: Broken by politics, now breaking SA
On Saturday evening the lights went out; again; for the third time in one day. I have to admit, I lost it. I took what we in my family call "a personal moment" where the children were banished to a separate room, and I turned the immediate air around me blue. I am a child of the 20th century, living in the 21st. I expect things to be better now than they were then. I expect the youngsters around me (which is most people nowadays) to have more electricity than I had, and not to have to regale them with stories of studying by shimmering light bulb. Quite frankly, we deserve better than this. And the mistakes that have been made are all political. The ANC has completely and utterly mismanaged the country's infrastructure; on this they have a terribly toxic tale to tell.
It is quite frankly amazing that the electricity crisis was not an election issue when we all voted, just six short months ago. Surely, surely, surely, a normal issue of governance like keeping the lights on is so simply an issue that there should be no question about it. Even someone as flawed as Nawaz Sharif was able to re-take power in Pakistan on the strength of his plan to fix power cuts in that country. But instead, for various complicated reasons peculiar to South Africa, keeping lights on doesn't seem to matter much.
Still, I bet if those elections were held this week things might have been slightly different. Energy expert Chris Yelland's claim that people at Eskom were told to run the power stations hard until after the elections seems so much more probable these days.
While it is common (and usually correct) to blame everything that goes wrong today on Number One, this is clearly not a fault that should be put squarely in his lap. The blame actually lies more with Thabo Mbeki, a man in the middle of a mild revival. Mbeki, up until now, has refused to take responsibility. While he has said 'sorry', there have been no consequences for the people who ignored Eskom's warnings that it was running out of power stations (I'm looking at you, Alec Erwin.). Instead, he has carried on smoking his pipe, speaking in the plural ("We went to Sudan", "We did this", "We did that") and fighting yesterday's battles with the Mail & Guardian over Zimbabwe's fixed elections he well knew about (and, thankfully, losing).
It's amazing really that the ANC of today hasn't said sorry, either. After all, it's the same party that was in power when the power generation was allowed to stagnate and when the distribution network was left alone to rot. The same party is in power now. You would think that Luthuli House would realise that to apologise can sometimes assuage the anger of a furious public. But no, we seem to be facing stony silence from them too. Even if they consult their dictionaries on the meaning of it and then dig through their archives and find some mention of the word 'apology', they should re-issue it now. Because they're likely to face a loss of four of the big metros as a direct result (generally speaking, service delivery plays a bigger role in local government elections than in national and provincial elections).
If you look at the power crisis we are in, it's really the fault of the political management all the way down the line. At the very heart of it lies the ANC's own schizophrenia over ideology.
This is a party that has a health minister who refuses to allow private medical schools to be allowed to teach doctors because then "only the children of the rich could become doctors" - that would be the same party that is privatising national roads. Huh? How can those two separate concepts exist within the same party? (And yes, Jeremy Cronin, allow me to renew my challenge once again: If you will still be called the South African Communist Party, then either come out and publicly oppose e-tolls, or suffer the humiliation of all of us knowing that your party is completely powerless and is simply the ANC's semi-external lobby group).
At the heart of Eskom schizophrenia was really a dispute about whether there should be private investment in power stations that delayed the construction of new stations back in the 1990s. It was only when the government realised the terms that had been set for private players were too onerous (no bids had really been received) that it had to start building its own.
And that was just the first mistake. The second, as we've seen so often, lay in the actual management of that construction, the getting it done was simply cocked up by politics. Because government, as an employer, suddenly had to deal with employees, who were members of government through the Alliance. And when, halfway through the construction of Medupi, those workers realised they had us all by the short and curlies, they started to strike, strike, and strike again.
The fact the majority of them are members of Numsa, which has its own reasons to be difficult at the moment, didn't help things at all, once that union started to break away from the ANC.
To make things much, much worse for all of us, we cannot assume that all of these decisions were just mistakes, while executing decisions taken in good faith. Because the ANC's investment arm, Chancellor House, invested in Hitachi, which won some of the contracts to build Medupi, and then had issues around boilers and spot-welds, we can't be absolutely sure that there was not some element of self-interest in some of these decisions.
And then there is the madness that Eskom does not come under the Minister of Energy, but under the Minister of Public Enterprises. Surely this is about energy, surely it should be Tina Joemat-Pettersson who is in the firing line here (although we all know that it would take the return of Jesus himself to get her fired). But instead we have Lynne Brown trying to deal with it. (And SAA, and every other parastatal that is a stuff-up - which is all 400 of them.) So while Eskom may be her priority, she is also distracted by everything else that is blowing up around her.
It is the worst kind of toxic mix of bad ideology, bad politics, and bent self-interest one can imagine.
But what boils my blood the most, it is that the problem was relatively easy to solve. For years Fin 24's Jan de Lange has been asking all the political role-players a simple question: Eskom, he says, needs more money to build new power stations. It has assets in the form of existing power stations. Why not sell some of those to the private sector, along with agreements to supply the power they produce back to Eskom at a set rate. With the proceeds, build new power stations. That would have generated cash for the utility when we all know it's about to run out of money. And it would have had the added bonus of making our electricity bills cheaper.
Every role player he has asked (and I personally watched him ask every politician in every press conference he went for a while) has squirmed, and eventually said no. And the answer, of course, is because in this case we are going towards the madness displayed by Aaron Motsoaledi. Instead of using the private sector to help us build new power stations or train more doctors, we are letting ideology stand in the way, and to hell with reality, or wellbeing of South African people. Sadly, what we really need here is a little more e-tolls thinking (I can't believe I just said that).
The fact is, the Eskom disaster is just one example of how the ANC's ideological schizophrenia, bad political management and all-round incompetence appears to be wrecking every parastatal and taking the country of South Africa down with it. Instead of just getting on with it, there are fights about ideology and money, and deadly injection of politics where politics should not thread. What's happening with Eskom is not much different from what is happening with the SABC, Post Office, Water affairs, Home Affairs, Transnet... (How much time do you have? This is one long list.)
It's just that with Eskom, my lights are going to go out again tonight. And, probably tomorrow as well. And for the next many years. And I really am not sure that I, or many other South Africans, can keep my cool for too much longer.
_Stephen Grootes is host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on _ Twitter: @StephenGrootes
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.