South Africa

From #PayBackTheMoney to Eskom: South Africa, the Fool’s Paradise

By Ranjeni Munusamy 13 March 2015

What is it about South Africans that makes it so easy to pull the wool over our eyes? On Wednesday President Jacob Zuma stood in Parliament and told the nation that regarding Nkandla: “The Public Protector has not said ‘pay back the money’.” Well, the thing is, she did. On Thursday, Eskom chairman Zola Tsotsi announced that four of the energy utility’s executives, including the CEO, had been suspended. But, he said, no culpability or charges against them were being investigated. There is “no problem” and “no crisis” at Eskom, Tsotsi said. Another day, another serving of codswallop dished out to South Africa. And we simply swallow it and move on. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

In the period Tshediso Matona served as Eskom chief executive, it is not sufficient time for a baby to properly develop in its mother’s womb, let alone to turn around the embattled energy utility that had been run into the ground for years. In the six months Matona served at the helm, he was the face of Eskom and the guy who had to give the nation the stream of bad news.

He had to tell us that the company had dropped the ball on the plant maintenance schedule and was in a cash crisis. Therefore, load shedding was back in our lives and could happen anytime, any day. There was no easy solution or quick fix to Eskom’s troubles. So it was Matona’s face that conjured up in your mind when you’re plunged into darkness or sitting in a traffic snarl up due to inoperative traffic lights.

When Eskom called a media briefing on Thursday morning with two hours notice and said it would be addressed by the Eskom chairman Zola Tsotsi, and not Matona, it was obvious that something bigger than the dreaded rolling blackouts would be announced. The one thing Eskom had been trying to achieve under Matona’s stewardship was to improve communications with the public so that people could be fully prepared for the power cuts with the least possible disruption.

But in government, transparency and the free flow of information are not always welcome. So after it was announced that Eskom and government were working together in a “war room” to deal with the power crisis, there was a noticeable difference in the approach to communications. Eskom’s former acting spokesman Andrew Etzinger, who proved to be extremely accessible to the media, was redeployed and the flow of information slowed down. Those were the first signs that Matona’s approach to matters was being undercut.

But it came as somewhat of a bombshell that the Eskom board decided to ask Matona and three other executives, Tsholofelo Molefe, Dan Marokane and Matshela Koko, to “step aside” as an “independent enquiry” is conducted into the “status of the business and its challenges”. Tsotsi said the probe would look into “the poor performance of generation plant” and delays in bringing new plant online. High costs of primary energy and cash flow challenges would also be investigated, he said.

Tsotsi said “external parties” would be selected within the week to conduct the enquiry, which was expected to last “no more than three months”.

As the media briefing progressed, the “step aside” euphemism was dispelled, and Tsotsi introduced the real term: suspended. When questioned as to what was behind the suspensions, Tsotsi there were no “charges” against the four executives and no culpability on their part was being investigated. In response to a request from a journalist to please be “frank”, Tsotsi said “nothing sinister” was going on. He also repeated a previous statement that there was “no crisis” at Eskom.

To further this incredible logic, Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown said in a series of radio interviews later in the day that the suspensions were “not punitive”. Suspension by definition means that the individuals are not allowed to continue their work and is in most cases invoked as a disciplinary measure. But Brown said the executives had to make way to give the board greater “oversight” into Eskom’s issues.

In a statement, Brown said she was “concerned about the instability at power plants; the financial liquidity of the utility; the lack of credible information; the unreliable supply of electricity and its dire impact on our economy; progress with the build programme; overruns at Medupi and Kusile; delays of the investigation into incidents at Majuba and Duvha; and the issue of coal and diesel pricing”. She said she had addressed the board on Wednesday and shared “my concerns, fears and frustration about the state of affairs”.

This is a markedly different message from the one Brown delivered in Parliament during the debate on the State of the Nation Address last month when she told the House that load shedding was hard but insisted there was no crisis on the energy situation. It would therefore be interesting to find out when she developed these “concerns, fears and frustration”.

While it was a board decision to suspend the executives, they clearly came under pressure from the Minister and needed to take drastic action. Matona has previously stated that there was no need for an investigation into Eskom’s problems because they knew what these were. Perhaps this counted against him.

Even if Matona is not fired at the end of this process, the fact that the Eskom board and the government as the shareholder believed that he would impede an independent inquiry, means that he no longer enjoys their confidence. Tsotsi denied this, claiming a question about “losing confidence” was a “non issue”. He also gave a convoluted analogy about being in a forest where the mist was very thick and needing to navigate the way out. It is not clear whether Matona and his colleagues were the trees or the mist in this analogy.

There are undoubtedly other reasons why Matona and co are on forced leave at a time when Eskom is in desperate need of leadership and stability. After the announcement, there was speculation that the axe was swung because of revelations in Business Times at the weekend that Eskom was trying to secure five million tons of expensive, export quality coal from Glencore’s Optimum Coal. The paper said this would cost Eskom R3.76 billion a year and because the power stations could not burn such high grades of coal, it would have to blended down.

But without complete candour from the board and government, there can only be speculation until the truth leaks out or becomes evident through the enquiry. What is clear is that the Eskom board and government decided that they could give the South African public a portion of the information about what prompted the suspensions and that this would suffice. There was little effort to respect the consumers enough to give an honest explanation as to why someone who was only six months on the job would be suspended. It is important to note that Tsotsi has served in various capacities at Eskom since 1997, and has been in his current position since 2011. Why then is he not shouldering a major portion of the blame? 

In truth though, the South African public has been highly tolerant of being treated with disdain. From the landing of the Gupta plane at Waterkloof Air Force Base, where only one official was made the fall guy and then rewarded with a diplomatic posting, to the Marikana massacre where not a single person has been held accountable for the police slaughtering mineworkers, South Africans are rather lenient when it comes to accountability.

On Wednesday, President Jacob Zuma at long last addressed the issue of when he would pay back the money for non-security state sponsored upgrades at his Nkandla residence during his question session in Parliament. “The Public Protector has not said ‘pay back the money’. The Public Protector has said because there was in her view undue benefits to the family and myself, she thinks this money might be paid back, but it should be determined by the minister of police. That determination has not been done,” Zuma said.

This is not what Thuli Madonsela said in her report on Nkandla. What she said was that the president is to:

  • Take steps, with the assistance of the National Treasury and the SAPS, to determine the reasonable cost of the measures implemented by the DPW (Department of Public Works) at his private residence that do not relate to security and which include (the) visitor’s centre, the amphitheatre, the cattle kraal and chicken run, the swimming pool.

  • Pay a reasonable percentage of the cost of the measures as determined with the assistance of National Treasury, also considering the DPW apportionment document.

Madonsela did not say the money “might be paid back” or that the Minister of Police Nkosinathi Nhleko should determine how much this should be. It was Zuma who announced that Nhleko should make this determination.

But Zuma said in Parliament: “There is no money I am going to be paying back without a determination by those authorised to do so as recommended by the Public Protector”.

What was the public reaction to this? People generally welcomed the fact that the president finally spoke on this issue and answered the question that he is obliged to answer. The fact that what he was saying was not strictly true did not matter. That is how low the bar of accountability is.

And that is why others in senior positions in the public service believe they can give the public titbits of information and get away with it, even if the crisis at Eskom has a massive impact on people’s livelihoods and way of life, as well as the financial stability and the future of the country. It is why an extraordinary battle is playing out between Nhleko and senior officials in the Hawks – the latest twist is the suspension of the head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate Robert McBride – with the public being mere spectators watching the fiasco. The same has happened with the National Prosecuting Authority and the South African Revenue Service.

One by one, institutions of South African democracy are being sidelined, declawed, taken over or completely dominated. Many are not performing their constitutional duty, some have seen their role called into question or denied by the very people they are supposed to keep in check, some have lost their institutional memory. The country’s infrastructure is marching towards collapse while the government plays politics.

If we exist in a fool’s paradise, it is because we have allowed ourselves to be played for fools. That is why we are in the dark, and will remain in the dark – literally and otherwise. DM

Photo: Power towers are seen outside the Koeberg nuclear power station on the West Coast outside Cape Town, South Africa, 18 February 2015. (reversed out image) EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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