When a problem crops up that needs to be solved by a government in a democracy, usually it is in the direct interest of that government to ensure that it is solved. If it is not, or if some other person or agency cannot be blamed for the problem, that government runs the risk of being voted out of power. It would appear that our government doesn’t seem to be that worried about something that matters to all of us. Eskom is on the verge of a precipice. And government is not giving any indication that it is any closer to finding a solution. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The problems facing Eskom are so large, and involve numbers that are frighteningly big. In a nutshell, there are two looming, expensive problems. Firstly, Eskom is has been running its diesel generators hard, and needs about R22bn – that’s twenty-two billion rand – for more diesel. Secondly, it needs a whole new funding model so that it can continue to build its power stations at Medupi and Kusile. Or, if you’re now a little cynical about this, it says it needs the money so it can keep telling us how much delayed Medupi is going to be.
For the first problem, Eskom needs the money by the middle of February. The alternative is simply countrywide rolling blackouts. Rather inconveniently for government, those are the days just before the budget, which may mean someone who currently has money budgeted for them is about to lose it. The identity of this Peter to be robbed hasn’t been given yet, but there are bound to be a few provincial departments who have underspent again (it would be fun to watch the conversation between Nhanhla Nene and Helen Zille…).
What is truly terrifying about this figure of twenty two billion rand (it’s easier to comprehend when it’s written out) is that this is just to get Eskom through the next few months. In other words, all the money spent on Nkandla so far would probably buy us just a couple of days worth of diesel.
In the longer term, of course, the entire system that we have now may need to change. The Public Enterprises Department is part of a task team examining how to fix it all. So far, suggestions range from increasing electricity prices again to selling some of Eskom’s assets, through to even breaking it up in some way.
We are now, of course, in the situation where radio stations are about to include the risk of load-shedding with their weather reports on the hour. And it’s just going to get worse. The Eskom planner that was handily put out by the utility last year puts days with a high risk of load-shedding in red. February is suddenly a red-block month (but we’ll put a lot of money on there being no load-shedding in Parliament for the State of the Nation Address. Oh, hang on, that would be one way out of a certain uncomfortable confrontation that’s looming).
So, then, what is the reaction to all of this; what is government doing?
Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown is keeping a rather low profile (but was probably not the only ANC-supporting Brown at the ANC’s big party in Cape Town this last weekend). In fact, it seems almost impossible to confirm when a big announcement from her office will take place.
The minister you would think is really in charge of this, i.e. the Energy Minister, is Tina Joemat-Pettersson. She’s been also quiet of late, and doesn’t seem to be involved at all. Which, considering her track record, is probably a good thing.
And then there is Cyril Ramaphosa, who was suddenly put in charge of Eskom by President Jacob Zuma last year, in a move that was clearly more about internal ANC politics, i.e. neutralising perceived threats, than about finding solutions to problems. If it were about finding solutions, then surely the one person in this country who can actually tell politicians in the ANC what to do would be taking charge of this himself. But instead, like the Teflon politician that he is, he’s found a way to escape responsibility for this too.
Ramaphosa may have been telling great stories to school kids this week, but he seems to be avoiding the Grimm Fairytale that is Eskom.
So when Number One does actually talk about the problems facing Eskom, what does he do?
With a straight face, he lies to the nation and blames Apartheid. Does he not know that Thabo Mbeki took responsibility for the issue in 2008? Is he so unaware of what is going on here that he doesn’t know his own party produced that White Paper in 1998 (1998!) predicting we’d run out of power at the end of 2007? (SA’s first rolling blackouts arrived in January 2008.)
“Although growth in electricity demand is only projected to exceed generation capacity by approximately the year 2007, long capacity-expansion lead times require strategies to be in place in the mid-term, in order to meet the needs of the growing economy.”
What makes this worse is that that lie is so blatant, so blindingly obviously a lie, that it is actually offensive. Mr President, if you are going to lie to us, please, at least lie well. Don’t make up this kind of crap on the hop, especially when your own party has actually said that it is not the case. Or was Thabo Mbeki actually not leading the party you lead now?
Of course, we may find that the scenario is about to change. Perhaps Brown and Ramaphosa and the people they have around them are all about to make a big announcement. Maybe, maybe, they have actually been working hard over the December period and have found a solution. Maybe this is actually the darkest hour before the dawn.
Maybe. Looking from outside, however, and knowing quite a bit from the inside of Eskom, the disintegration of the SA’s energy utility is an almost unstoppable process. Like many other government-owned enterprises, it’s been way too involved in politics and way too little in what it should actually be delivering to South Africa. The still-unpunished years of neglect and catastrophic strategic decisions could not have continued indefinitely. Now, Eskom stands barely on its feet, like a boxer awaiting a certain knockout. Money for diesel will definitely come, but it will still be as unsteady on its feet as it is now. Medupi and Kusile may help, one day, in a future that may well turn out to be an Anti-Utopia. But they need to be built first, which is turning out to be a massive problem, too. And all along, our president is either quiet or resorts to statements so ridiculous they leave the long-suffering country nauseous.
But then again, canned food keeps for a very long time – and doesn’t need refrigeration. DM
Photo: Medupi Power Station near Lephalale in Limpopo as seen during a media visit on Thursday, 11 April 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA