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Why do we not have enough electricity: A rough guide

The roots of our current electricity crisis, like so much else, lie in our history, and the transition from the Apartheid state to democracy.

In the 1980's Eskom had built generating capacity to the point where it simply had too much power. As a result, the apartheid government urged it to negotiate agreements with mining firms who could use that power. This led to the construction of aluminium smelters which are huge users of electricity. Thus, when the ANC took over government in 1994, the situation seemed relatively stable, there was plenty of power, and large users were using the excess (even if they were paying quite low prices for it).

Then, in around 1997, the Energy Ministry decided to plot the way forward, it was necessary to plan for the future. In a White Paper produced in 1998, the ministry pointed out quite correctly as it turned out, that if no new capacity was built, the country would run out of power in 2007:

The maximum demand in 1997 was about 28 330 MW. Eskom'slatest Integrated Electricity Plan forecasts for an assumed demand growth of 4,2% thatEskom's present generation capacity surplus will be fully utilised by about 2007. Timely steps will have to be taken to ensure that demand does not exceed available supply capacity andthat appropriate strategies, including those with long lead times, are implemented in time.

Considering that the first load shedding happened in January 2008, Eskom's prediction turned out to be exactly on the money. The question of course, is why was nothing done.

At the time, it was decided that the private sector should be introduced, and build power stations which would produce electricity that consumers would pay for through the grid (at the time, many other countries were also privatising their electricity sectors). However, the terms that were offered to the private sector were not very appealing. This meant that no serious players offered bids to produce power.

It seems it took quite some time for anyone to realise this. Eskom itself knew that new power stations needed to be built, and built soon, because of the long lead-times involved. It also appears there is no proof that Eskom was in any way wrong here. In fact it appears it was the Cabinet at the time, led by Thabo Mbeki as President, with Alec Erwin as Public Enterprises Minister, who sat by and did nothing.

Mbeki himself has confirmed this, saying in 2008 that:

When Eskom said to the government: 'We think we must invest more in terms of electricity generation', we said no, but all you will be doing is just to build excess capacity," he said in a speech.

"We said not now, later. We were wrong. Eskom was right. We were wrong."

However, because of the political situation at the time, nothing was done to punish or hold accountable in any way, those who did ignore Eskom and "were wrong".

It's important to remember the political context of January and February 2008. Jacob Zuma had just beaten Mbeki to become leader of the ANC at Polokwane. Immediately after Zuma became leader the power cuts started. The country was in uproar over the corruption charges against Zuma.

Then, in the middle of all of this, came the xenophobic attacks, which saw dozens of foreign nationals being killed in Alexandra and other parts of the country.

And after that, in September, came the ruling of Judge Chris Nicolson that corruption charges against Zuma should be "struck off the roll" and his finding that Mbeki had played a role in the prosecution of Zuma. As a direct result of that, Mbeki was recalled from office, and agreed to step down.

Because of all of this, load-shedding fell almost into the background of our politics, it was present, but as long as the lights were kept on, because of the other political activity (an election was still on the horizon in 2009) that was going on at the time.

Within Eskom, there was other turmoil. Jacob Maroga was forced to resign as chief executive after a huge fight with then Eskom Chair Bobby Godsell. At one point parts of the ANC were supporting Godsell, and others were supporting Maroga. It got a little ugly, and it would be very hard to claim that politics has not played a role in delaying the building of power stations here.

In the meantime, Eskom's top brass had clearly decided they could keep the lights on, by reducing the amount of maintenance they did on the power stations. They drove them harder and harder.

Like any car, you can drive it in the red, and do no maintenance, and it will perform for quite a while. But you would never want to buy a car that has been driven like that. That is the situation our power stations are in now. They've been driven hard, and are now not performing as well as they should.

It's been claimed the current maintenance being conducted on those power stations was held off until after the May elections. It is a hard claim to prove, but is likely to be believed by many people.

What was supposed to prevent all of this was the construction of the Medupi and Khusile power stations. They are both massive operations, however their construction has been delayed by several years. This has been through a combination of bad planning, and, it seems, difficulties in keeping workers on the site. Led by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, many of those workers went on strike after strike. While those disputes appear to have been resolved for the moment, Eskom has confirmed that most of those workers did take their Christmas holidays.

In conclusion, the load-shedding we are suffering through is due to a combination of bad planning, the refusal by the Mbeki administration to listen to Eskom, and poor political management.

Read more: the 1998 White Paper.

More from the same author on Eskom.

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

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