OPINION: Eskom is powerless, in more ways than one

As South Africa emerges from another dark weekend to the chaos of load-shedding traffic, one would think that the country's best minds were focused on making sure the one project underway that could bring this to an end was progressing well. They would be wrong. Instead, Eskom, contractors, and Numsa are all having a huge fight over who is right and who is wrong at the Medupi power station construction site. The now six-week long strike there is surely the single biggest example of our broken politics, and of the failure of our state to actually manage anything. And there are no signs at all that the situation will get better.

That Eskom does not have enough power to keep all of our lights on at the same time is pretty self-evident. Just last week I found myself editing sound of Brian Molefe's Eyewitness News interview by the light of a solar-jar. The scale of the problem is massive; load shedding has gone from a stage one, occasional occurrence, to stage two, regular darkness. And while at one point it seemed that it would stop in winter, because the maintenance underway now would get the power stations in good nick for the colder months, that no longer seems to be the case.

Meanwhile, there has now been no construction at Medupi, apart from at unit six, since 25 March. The origins of the conflict lie in a protest march by workers there: 1,000 of those workers were fired, and the other 17,000 (yes, that's right, 17,000) have refused to return to work until the 1,000 that were fired are allowed back. In the meantime, this dispute is littered with the usual intimidation, violence and denials that mark our strikes.

It seems intolerable that this is so. This means we will have another six weeks of load shedding. Eskom is very quick to point out that 18 months - a full year and a half's worth of construction time - have been lost at Medupi through industrial action alone.

It will come as no surprise to most to learn that the main union at Medupi, namely the National Union of Metalworkers of SA ( Numsa) (the very same union that has been kicked out of Cosatu) is planning a new workers' party, and is what you could call 'hard left'. This is the same union that has organised Gautrain bus drivers to go on strike during rush hours, in pursuit of a one-hour paid lunch break (whichever manager at Gautrain allowed Numsa in to organise this is probably going to lose their job).

On the face of it, all that Numsa is really demanding is more money. In reality, they are most likely using this to try to make a name for themselves. There can surely be no answer to the claim that they are simply holding the entire country to ransom. We need the power - Eskom knows that - and it won't be long before someone, somewhere, just caves in and gives them the money they're asking for. In public, Eskom says this is a dispute between contractors and workers, but Eskom is really the organisation in charge here.

There are several issues at play. The first is the question of whether Numsa is really doing this for political ends, or whether it is it about weakening the ANC government, generally showing that it cannot actually keep the lights on or control just about anything. Numsa will deny this strongly; their claim is that "workers' rights are human rights" (although all rights are limited under our system) and that this is simply a normal workplace dispute.

If it is playing politics, it's a very dangerous game for Numsa. At the moment, as an organisation, it is defending its base, namely the workers who belong to it. But if it is to become a political party, it has to reach out beyond that base. In this case, defending the base constituency is a huge risk. Come elections, with load shedding still a daily occurrence, the ANC now has a new person to blame in Numsa. You can imagine President Jacob Zuma's line: first it was apartheid that created this problem, then when we tried to fix it, it was Numsa that stopped us. It doesn't have to be true, it just has to be politically plausible.

For Numsa ever to succeed as a party, it may have to make a compromise for its base. It's a tough line to tread, but then, that's the game they've decided to play.

Then there is the question of how Eskom has managed to allow this project to be so delayed in the first place. It's the result of their mistakes all the way along the line with this project that has allowed one union literally to dictate how much electricity is available to the nation. Surely, surely, instability at the top of Eskom, largely because of political interference, is to blame. The mess around CEOs, the fact that Brian Molefe now has to be referred to as the "current acting CEO" because there is in fact another "suspended CEO"; the fact that there is an "acting chair", all of it points to this production as a farce mixed with tragedy.

In the meantime, there is another, bigger problem looming on the horizon. All of last week was marked by violent protests in Orlando in Soweto, over a plan by Eskom to install pre-paid electricity meters. Eskom, we know, is running out of money. We know also that this is largely because not enough people are paying enough money for the power they use. As a result, Eskom is now trying to ensure that people pay for power properly, and do this before using it, because of all the chaos and confusion that paying for it afterwards can cause (Exhibit A: the Joburg billing crisis).

It surely has to be accepted that in the provision of power, as in all else, there is no such thing as a free lunch. But residents there refuse to accept that; they basically want power for free. They won't say that, of course; it's cloaked in other claims - that the meters over-charge, or are too expensive, but in the end, it comes down to the same thing. This surely is a political problem that is going to require huge effort to solve. But no effort is being made. There are no presidential visits to Orlando to explain the situation, no ANC leaders going there to ask why power must be free; instead, Eskom is left on its own.

In fact, when there is a power cut in Soweto, as there was on Friday, the City of Joburg, ever mindful of next year's elections, suddenly condemns the power cut. They didn't do that when middle-class Craighall Park was plunged into darkness two nights last week.

The amount of money owed by Soweto residents to Eskom is thought to be around R8 billion. That's a huge amount of money, more than is owed by the defaulting municipalities. Surely, if Soweto doesn't pay, Eskom cannot function. It is that simple.

If ever we needed a united national effort to fix something, it is our power crisis. If ever we needed anything to be front of mind, at the top of every politician's speech, at the very forefront of the national agenda, it is surely this. And yet, everywhere, leaders seem to just ignore it. Instead of being united in action, everyone is united in just not caring. Maybe they'll care when the darkness becomes almost permanent. Or maybe they won't.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for _ Eyewitness News _ and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: _ @StephenGrootes_