Eskom and its urgent interventions - 12 years on

Eskom’s problems are often labelled as shocking and in need of urgent intervention. Yet the can has been kicked down the road over the decade.

FILE: Eskom's Megawatt Park in Johannesburg. Picture: EWN

JOHANNESBURG - “This stage four load shedding does not come as quite a shock. That is most worrying, most disturbing. It has shocked me and has made me quite angry that we have reached this stage of dysfunctionality. The Minister of Public Enterprises is right now – together with the board – with that issue. When I get back home I will be getting a report.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was President Cyril Ramaphosa recently speaking about Eskom’s load shedding problems this week – but this is actually him nine months ago. He was also out of the country at the time of the crisis then, attending the African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

This is déjà vu – the country has been here many times. Eskom’s problems are always labelled as "shocking" and in need of urgent intervention. Yet the can has been kicked down the road over the decade.

In 2008, South Africans first learned about load shedding as the country had to cope with outages for several hours per day, which lasted for weeks on end.

In January that year, the then Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin said: “Poor quality coal and things like the current heavy rain are too great a risk for the system. It is this combination of factors that has caused unprecedented levels of unplanned outages. It is far too disruptive to ordinary households and the business community. Those least able to adjust often bear the greatest brunt. It is for this reason that the issue constitutes an emergency and we are taking emergency steps to move the system out of its current state of criticality.”

But there have also been denials about the extent of the problem.

Fast forward to August 2015, when then President Jacob Zuma said progress was made to make sure the country steered clear of an electricity grid collapse.

“Substantial progress has been made in resolving the energy challenge. The operations and maintenance practices at Eskom continue to improve to ensure the power plants are appropriately maintained and provide electricity within their capacity. Eskom has signed short-term power purchase agreements that bring an additional supply of electricity to cater for the shortfall due to maintenance and to match demand during peak period.”

Just nine months later – in May 2016 – Zuma visited the utility’s offices during a media tour and vowed to the nation that load shedding would never happen again. It was a bold statement – and one that government could not live up to.

“The presentation convinced me that indeed there will never be load shedding again in our country. In fact, it was indicated that in the very near future, we'll have surplus energy. I’m as excited as anything as I leave Eskom now because energy is very important to the life of the people. But I also had an opportunity to see the flow of energy throughout the country and they are able to control it. They further convinced me that this company knows what they are doing.”

In February 2019, South Africa reached stage four load shedding for the first time ever, with Ramaphosa saying he was shocked at the revelation.

"That comes as quite a shock. It is reported that there are six units that are down - that is most worrying, most disturbing," said Ramaphosa during a live Twitter broadcast at the time.

This week again, Ramaphosa was again shocked to hear that South Africa had reached stage six load shedding, with the system needing to free up 6,000 MW on the power grid.

Eyewitness News revealed on Tuesday that the president flew home from a planned trip to Egypt following the public outcry over his travel, which was announced shortly after South Africans were saddled with stage six load shedding. Ramaphosa met with Eskom officials on Wednesday, and announced that an act of sabotage resulted in a loss of 2,000MW, with the rest of the problems being wet coal and incorrect design plans at the Medupi and Kusile power stations.

So, for 12 years, South African leaders and government have been grappling with the same problems – wet coal, aging infrastructure and allegations of sabotage.

But despite strongly worded statements, outrage, emergency plans, mud-slinging and finger-pointing, the coal still gets wet during the rainy season, employees are still accused of sabotaging the grid, and the aging infrastructure keeps breaking down.

**ESKOM'S PLAN OF ACTION THROUGH THE YEARS**

December 2014

Cabinet had a five-point plan in place and then Energy Minister Jeff Radebe announced the setting up of a war room to deal with Eskom’s energy problems. This was in response to power cuts and diesel shortages.

Ramaphosa, then deputy president, was assigned by former President Jacob Zuma to oversee the turnaround of three ailing state-owned companies: Eskom, SAA, and the Post Office.

2015

Brian Molefe was appointed CEO of Eskom, but he left the company in disgrace in November 2016. Not much load shedding was experienced during his time, but Molefe was criticised for using diesel to avoid power cuts, which is very expensive and left Eskom in billions of rands of debt.

2017

In May that year, Parliament announced an inquiry into Eskom’s affairs, with particular reference to the pension payout and reappointment of Molefe. That lead to a number of executives resigning and some being axed.

2018

In January, Ramaphosa announced a new board led by Jabu Mabuza. In May, Phakamani Hadebe was appointed as the permanent CEO of Eskom, but he didn’t last long and resigned citing health issues.

At the end of the year, Ramaphosa, as interim president, set up an Eskom sustainability task team to advise the government on plans to resolve problems faced by the utility.

FEBRUARY 2019

Ramaphosa announced a special Cabinet task team led by Deputy President David Mabuza and included Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. The president also announced that the power utility would be split into three separate entities: generation, transmission, and distribution.

That same month, he also announced that engineers from Italian energy company Enel were visiting Eskom to help with maintenance issues.

MARCH 2019

Eskom appointed a technical review team to look at the operations, maintenance, and technical environment at the ailing utility.

NOVEMBER 2019

Nampak CEO Andre de Ruyter was announced as the new Eskom CEO. He is expected to be in the office from mid-January 2020.