South Africa

ANC’s march against Eskom: When a political stunt becomes a farce

By Stephen Grootes 14 May 2015

On Thursday, the ANC is marching on Eskom to protest against the way that pre-paid meters are being installed in some parts of Soweto, in particular the suburb of Orlando. The protest comes after both the ANC in Joburg and the City of Joburg condemned Eskom for a ten-hour-long power cut in that area on Friday, amid claims that it was a deliberate act designed to punish residents for their violent protests against the same meters earlier in the week. Eskom has denied this. Only in South Africa could you have a party that designs a policy to be implemented, and then protests against that very same policy. This is the consequence of political promises, short-termism, and shoddy planning. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Last week the City of Joburg and the ANC in the city both issued statements that looked remarkably similar, at around the same time. Both condemned and criticised the power cuts in Soweto the day before. It’s been mentioned before, but it is worth mentioning again, that those same organisations have not publicly condemned previous power cuts in other parts of the city. There is, in case you’ve forgotten, a Local Government Election coming up. You might says this is all proof that the ANC has already written off the suburbs and formerly white areas.

The main claim from them both was that Eskom had implemented the cuts deliberately. On the Midday Report on Wednesday, the city’s Member of the Mayoral Committee for Environment and Infrastracture, Matshidiso Mfikoe, reiterated the claim, and then went on to say it was unfair behaviour by Eskom, because it was punishing both payers and non-payers alike.

The problem is that Eskom has its own, quite plausible explanation for the events. It says that there was load-shedding in that area for the usual four hours. But, when the power was supposed to be turned back on, a transformer tripped, because it was dealing with a load above its capability. And the reason for that, says Megawatt Park, is that there are now so many illegal connections in that area, that the transformer was simply overloaded, and blew.

But the city is not buying that explanation. In fact Mfikoe claims that a lack of communication from Eskom is almost proof that there was a major problem. And despite all of Eskom’s explanations, the ANC is going ahead with its march.

To add a bit more spice to the situation, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, which has long campaigned against pre-paid electricity meters, came up with its own explanation for these problems on Wednesday. It says that electricity must be free. It accepts that it costs money to generate electricity, but says simply that the ANC promised free electricity to people who needed it, and now it must deliver on that promise. When pushed on when exactly this promise was made, it appears to hark back to the 1994 elections. Which is going back a very long time indeed.

So then, to throw all of this together, what do we have? Eskom, running out of money, under pressure from all sides, and trying to keep the lights on while dealing with illegal connections, violent protests, and an R8bn hole in its accounts from Soweto alone. Municipal authorities who publicly accuse it of wrong-doing with no proof, refuse to accept its explanations, and an ANC that is clearly just going populist.

If you are looking for a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the politics of our power system, here it is. Politicians hungry for a quick vote are basically bullying the people they employed.

The really strange part of this is that the installation of pre-paid meters is a national programme. It’s been implemented by Eskom after a decision by national government. Even the City of Joburg says that the plan must go ahead. How then can the ANC in Joburg, the people who “deployed” those who run the city, really go ahead and protest against the plan? The leader of the ANC in Joburg is…you guessed it…Parks Tau. (You can call him Councillor Tau, if you bump into him, because that is what you call mayors these days.)

So, the organisation led by a man who also leads the city that says the plan must go ahead is marching against the plan. This is a lot like the time the Gauteng ANC testified against e-tolls to the panel it arranged to be set up. Kafka would be proud.

The cynicism of this political stunt is breath-taking. It is clear that the ANC in Joburg is deeply worried about the 2016 elections, despite denials to the contrary. It must also be worried that one of the big risks for them is that someone else could come along and mobilise this anger at pre-paid meters to back another political party. (One could imagine a red-beret-ed leader arriving into this at some point.)

The deeper irony is that it is in fact possible to get free electricity from Eskom in these areas already. There is at the moment a policy: you have to live in an area that receives electricity, and prove that you have no source of income. Eskom will actually come to your house and make sure that no one with an income lives there before providing it, but they will actually do it. So it’s very difficult to claim that Eskom is the heartless one here.

All of this obscures a much bigger problem. Which is what happens when you make a promise you have no intention of keeping. Whether the ANC in fact promised free electricity as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee claims is almost a moot point. The fact is that that belief has taken hold among many community members there. The ANC has to stamp it out, publicly and explicitly; it has to say it did not make that promise. To do anything else in the name of political expediency is simply storing up trouble to boil over at a later stage.

One can imagine, after the elections are over, what will happen when Eskom comes again, as it surely must, to install these meters. There will be more protests, and anyone who represents the ANC could be in danger. Normally, that means the home of the local ANC councillor gets torched. That could easily happen more often, and perhaps the violence will even escalate to a new pitch.

A question is often posed in this country about what the ANC will do if its power is ever threatened. It seems clear that one of its responses is going to be to over-promise, to promise the Earth. Even when it is absolutely clear that that promise can’t be kept.

Electricity costs money to generate. Politicians can change the laws of humans. But they cannot change the laws of physics. DM

Photo: Electricity pylons in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township stand against the skyline of the city’s Sandton business district in this May 25, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/Files


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