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1 August 2014 15:43 (South Africa)
South Africa

Eskom: There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but it keeps going out

  • Stephen Grootes
  • South Africa
stephen-power-subbed.jpg

Politics is power. Nowhere can that be truer than when it comes to governance in South Africa, and our electrical supply. It is clear that we do not have enough electricity, and won't have for many more years. It's also clear that because of what we could call the unique features of our political system, not one political leader is going to pay a political price for this. And if that is not depressing enough, consider this: the legal system we have at the moment around power is not going to change. The proposed laws that would have seen other producers helping out Eskom are lapsing in Parliament as we speak - and will have to be drawn up again after the elections. Things are most definitely going to get darker before they get lighter. If they ever get lighter. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The Constitution talks a lot about accountability. People have to take responsibility for their actions. They have to stand up and say, ‘I was responsible, it was me, and this is why it happened.’ The same holds true for organisations and political parties more generally. It's the age-old system that should work. If everyone knows what their leaders are doing and why, then they can make judgments on them and vote appropriately.

This is why it is so maddening that no one has taken any responsibility for the situation in which Eskom finds itself. To be fair, this situation didn't just happen overnight. Rather, it's more like Helen Zille's famous plane-crash scenario. Many people have to make the wrong decisions over a period of time. And that is what happened here. What is simply unacceptable, however, is that they are still making the wrong decisions.

When casting around for one figure, one person to blame, Alec Erwin, the former minister of Public Enterprises, is probably the best candidate. This happened on his watch. He was the minister in charge of Eskom at the time that decisions were made to postpone building more power generating capacity. He could, of course, devolve some of that blame to the people at Eskom in the mid-2000's. Former Eskom CEO Thulani Gcabashe took home huge bonuses back then because of Eskom's financial results. That's what happens if you cut back on maintenance: you make more money.

The cost is borne by the entire nation.

Erwin, don't forget, is more famous for claiming, the day before the 2006 Local Government Elections, that "human instrumentality" and "deliberate damage" were the causes for Koeberg going offline and causing power cuts in Cape Town. And then denied claiming there was "sabotage".

It was he who failed to notice how Eskom under Gcabashe was making money. And when the time came to take responsibility, he hid behind a decision by then-president Thabo Mbeki for the entire Cabinet to take "collective responsibility" for what had happened.

That simply meant that no one actually had to carry the can. Apart from then-Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, no one has ever apologised.

Given that keeping the lights on is usually how an electorate judges a government, you would think that finding every which way to fix the problem would be a priority.

You would be wrong. UCT Professor and National Planning Commission member Anton Eberhard has pointed out that Eskom actually said no to privately-produced power. There was a coal power plant in Botswana, the entire thing was ready to go, there was financing, and the contractors were in place. All that was needed was someone's John Hancock on a dotted line somewhere. Yet Eskom said no.

Not before the 2008 power cuts, mind. After.

Depressed yet? Save it for later.

Because the Independent Power Producers Association has more. It says that in fact, there is no legal framework yet in place for its members to sell power to the grid.

So it's not just that Eskom is being difficult; this attitude comes from above. This seems to be about politics. Because the Bills that would allow all of this to happen - for the bigger firms and the mines like Anglo American to build power stations and provide power back to the national grid - have not gone through the appropriate Parliamentary process yet. In the words of the Association's Chair Doug Kuni, they've been "stifled". If you hadn't noticed, there's an election coming. Which means there will be a new Parliament after May. Which means the entire process has to start again.

Why on earth is this happening?, one should ask. Why is it that the Mail & Guardian has been leading with huge, complex stories about what we as a nation are spending on nuclear power for the future, and whether it's going to the Russians or the Chinese? And yet for the moment, there's no real medium term focus on where our power will come from five years from now?

The short answer, of course, is the disaster that is Medupi. The power station that should have started producing about three years ago. Except that it would need more than one unit to be producing to have saved us from the power-shedding we saw last week. It would probably take more than three of its units. Medupi is probably going to be the case-study for those who want to know what happens when a state-owned entity has to manage private contractors who have to deal with unions. By the way, the union in question that's been causing at least a part of the damage is NUMSA. (The ones who've been wanting to start their own party.) They've called a series of strikes on the building site.

Still, the Medupi issue looks more as an ugly side-show in the political game that is South Africa of today. It boggles one's mind that the ruling party would benefit through its investment arm, Chancellor House, which until recently held a part in Hitachi Africa, which in turn won the contact and then held up Medupi's construction through sub-standard delivery.

And yet, Hitachi Africa is a comparatively small problem when you consider that the government seams unable to find a way of making sure there is a readily available power supply, through bad management & governance, and even ideology.

There are plenty of examples of other countries where they've just cocked up the legal framework for power production. Pakistan is one. India is another (not that they'll work together to solve their mutual problems). California had its own serious problems for quite some time. It is not an easy problem to solve. It requires forethought, having the country's best interests at heart, and a certain ideological flexibility that sees government and private business working together. We, in South Africa of today, simply have no idea how to leave the politics and easy money making schemes behind and deal with this massive problem that threatens to seriously weaken the economy and leave the population exposed to populist politics to an even greater degree. Until we see the light at the end of this particular rainbow, we're all going to suffer in darkness. DM

Grootes is the senior political reporter for Eyewitness News, and the host of the Midday Report. He's also the author of SA Politics Unspun.

Photo: Medupi Power Station near Lephalale in Limpopo as seen during a media visit on Thursday, 11 April 2013.

Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

  • Stephen Grootes
  • South Africa


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