Business, Politics

Nersa’s Gauteng hearings – Day One: the people have spoken

By Branko Brkic 22 January 2010

The National Energy Regulator’s hearings are odd. Everyone takes them very seriously. Shame it is just plain useless.

The Nersa people are all there, in their best regulator attire. The dark suit and tie, the slightly forced smile firmly in place, the jumping on any chance to make a brief witticism. Every submission is taken seriously, everyone gets to be asked questions, even if they’re clearly beyond the regulatory and economic pale. It’s good. It’s democracy in action. It makes everyone feel listened to and appreciated.

Of course, most people know by now that the hearings are simply not how things are done in South Africa. Things work differently here. Or at least that is the claim. Luthuli House will make the final decision. Add to that this week’s admission that the ANC still has a stake in a company that will benefit directly and enormously from Eskom’s build programme, and you have a fertile brew for cynicism.

But because we’re optimists here at The Daily Maverick, we thought it important to give you the brief highlights of Day One of Nersa’s Gauteng hearings. They’ve been around elsewhere in the country, but this is where most of the important business will be done.

First up, of course, Eskom’s chairman and CEO, Mpho Makwana. He’s done this speech 10 times now. First to journalists when the price hike proposal went to three times 35%, and eight times in the seven other provinces and one republic (That’s just rude, young Grootes! The Western Cape is still part of South Africa, like it or not. – Ed). It’s very simple, give us the money, or we’re all gonna die. He gets another go, where he’ll say exactly the same thing at the end. But the regulators, bless ’em, after all these times still have questions to ask.

Then a couple of people didn’t pitch up, which seemed to please the regulators greatly. After a brief pause, the Displaced Ratepayers Association took to the podium. There was some confusion about who was actually speaking, then the translator for isiZulu and isiXhosa didn’t pitch. Of all the languages not to arrive. Anyway, the gist of the association’s presentation was that a power price hike was bad. It was emotional.

By this stage the entire room started to feel small. We’ll never understand what Nersa was thinking. They chose the smallest room at Gallagher Estate. Did they think no one would care?

Moving on, the Energy Intensive Users Group took over. Basically your typical white business bloke who knows how to speak PC. It was good competent stuff. The general message: some of our members will go under at 35%, some will go under at 25%.

Smart Green Property was next. Smart Who? One of the smaller lobby groups that come out to play at things like this. It’s about power efficiency. They had their time, and everybody moved on.

The human element then took centre stage. The owner of a pottery company, armed with lots of information about kilns, firing pots and energy usage. It was the typical example of a company going to the wall because of higher power prices. The speech used words and phrases like retrenchment, my workers, and finally, closing down. It rammed home the message that this issue is actually affecting people’s lives in a very real way. Perhaps Alex Erwin should have been there to hear it?

Another suit took over, this time representing “Big Business”. Nothing you haven’t heard before. The hikes would be bad for the economy, bad for business, and generally bad. And “the shareholder” (i.e. government) should be responsible for paying for Eskom’s capital expenditure.

After a reasonable lunch, the greenie beanies took over. If Eskom claims we’re all gonna die without the price hikes, it’ll be Eskom that kills us. Earthlife Africa and Greenpeace Africa had a good old rail against the machine moment. They brought their brains, lots of good academic stuff, full of facts and figures about how “the world would be so much better if only…” Earthlife felt the need to end their presentation with a slide of Chernobyl. Nothing like the soothing, grand gesture.

Things really took off after that. The Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa sent a guy with a great mandate. He was switched on and experienced, both with politics and Nersa. He spoke about the load shedding that will return, how municipalities are profiteering, and more importantly, about the dubious nature of the whole price determination process. He had the balls to mention the secretary general of the ruling party, and dared Nersa to hold another day of hearings, to hear from all the government departments how they are involved, to hear from Luthuli House, to see what they actually have to say in public.

It was riveting stuff. And it broke the hold the make-believe had had on the day.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an EWN reporter)

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