South Africa


Eskom’s nine circles of hell, and election politics

Eskom’s nine circles of hell, and election politics
Original photo by EPA.

It’s election time and Eskom load shedding is front and centre on the 8 May campaign trail. Finding itself in the heart of election politicking is not a good place for the deeply troubled Eskom. Its financial, operational, structural and, yes, political problems will bedevil the power utility for a very long time to come, well past the five-year term of incoming politicians.

The DA is pushing hard on Eskom in the run-up to the 8 May elections, putting the crisis-strapped power utility at the heart of State Capture and ANC (mis)governance. Monday’s media briefing on the DA request to recall Parliament to establish an ad hoc committee on Eskom — this briefing came after at least five official statements in the week before — was on Tuesday followed by a briefing of DA national leader Mmusi Maimane and the mayors of the three metros the DA governs, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Tshwane.

The message? The DA has a plan (more about that a little later).

DA internal polling indicates the opposition party could galvanise on anger caused by load shedding and, in particular, the recent eight days of Stage 4 load shedding, according to two insiders. Various pre-election polls put the DA at best at its 2014 performance, or 22.23% of the vote nationally, with an outright win in the Western Cape with 59.38%.

DA national spokesperson Solly Malatsi on Tuesday dismissed the idea that the opposition party was under pressure on the campaign trail.

Our own polls are telling us we are on track with our priorities: Retaining the Western Cape, being the majority party in Gauteng and the Northern Cape. Our polling is consistent with that.”

The DA had a difficult 2018, acknowledged Malatsi, but the party was coming out of that more united and ready with alternatives.

On an average day, there are 10 political events headlined by different leaders to interact with voters… showcasing a party that’s engaging with voters, a party that has alternatives and a unity of leadership that is refreshing.”

Eskom was the most pressing national issue, said Malatsi, staying on message with the previous DA statements put out between 17 and 22 March by Maimane and DA MP Natasha Mazzone, the State Capture spokesperson on the DA TeamOneSouthAfrica election team.

President Cyril Ramaphosa played a central role in the systematic collapse of Eskom… Therefore his ‘apology’ for the persistent rolling blackouts across the country this weekend is not good enough… South Africans are rightly angry with power cuts and deserve decisive action from the government — not empty words,” said Maimane in a statement on 17 March.

On 20 March Mazzone followed suit:

Today marks the fourth anniversary since Cyril Ramaphosa promised South Africans ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ on the Eskom electricity crisis. As the country continues to buckle under the sustained and relentless pressures of the failing ANC’s rolling power blackouts — the government is yet to provide South Africans with a clear plan of action to keep the lights on.”

The DA said 29 March would be a “national day of action” over Eskom.

Signalling Eskom as an urgent national issue also arose in the DA request to reconvene Parliament to establish an ad hoc committee on Eskom, a request that National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete dismissed on Tuesday.

She (Mbete) agreed the prevailing energy crisis was a very serious matter for the nation. However, existing portfolio committees were empowered to deal with the issues at Eskom… The relevant committees could, therefore, take up the matter if needed and there was no need for the National Assembly to be reconvened at this point,” said a statement by Parliament.

DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen sharply criticised that decision.

It is inconceivable that the lights are out at Parliament while they are out across the country, too. The Speaker has a constitutional obligation to ensure that the legislature resolves the problems that the executive is unable or unwilling to deal with.”

For the ANC, load shedding and the Eskom crisis is a close follower on its election campaign trail that has been criss-crossing South Africa at an unrelenting pace.

Over the weekend campaigning in and around Cape Town Ramaphosa hauled out the governing party’s drawcard — government action.

We are addressing the Eskom issue every day. I’m saying to the whole nation let’s not panic, let us join hands, close ranks and work together… There is nothing much more urgent than restoring the power,” he told Delft residents during the Friday walkabout, according to Fin24.

ANC acting national spokesperson Dakota Legoete said on Tuesday that the DA was using Eskom as an election issue because – “they have no strategy to win votes except to piggyback on the challenges the ANC is facing”.

The ANC had faced up to challenges and was addressing these, said Legoete. We know (load shedding) it’s a serious setback for our economy and safety… criminals come in the dark. That’s why we will do everything to find a permanent solution to load shedding”.

But that’s just where politics comes in. ANC alliance partners, the labour federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) have sharply criticised the governing ANC’s plans to unbundle Eskom into three entities, as announced in Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address in February, and followed up with details and a R69-billion guaranteed bailout over the next three years in the Budget.

The political whipping was such that Ramaphosa used his reply to the parliamentary State of the Nation Address debate to placate unions with reassurances there would be no retrenchments.

On 18 March Ramaphosa, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and Energy Minister Jeff Radebe spent three hours at the National Union of Metalworkers (NUM) head offices, talking Eskom.

The NUM is relieved after being assured by the president that no jobs will be lost in the process of unbundling and that the power utility will remain 100% state-owned. The president also assured the NUM that going forward, stakeholders will be taken along or consulted when major decisions are taken,” said the trade union in a statement afterwards.

The presidential trek to downtown Johannesburg helped calm matters. A week earlier, on 12 March, a NUM special energy national shop stewards’ council had decided not only to march to ANC headquarters Luthuli House on 30 March to call for the resignation or sacking of Eskom board chairperson Jabu Mabuza and others, but also to organise a national shutdown from 3 May up to election day.

Both the call for Gordhan and Mabuza’s dismissal and a national shutdown to defend Eskom had already been made by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) in February.

Amid this politicking is another layer of contestation: The independent power producers (IPPs), officially part of South Africa’s power policy, but opposed by many, including Numsa, which has identified IPPs as one reason for the Eskom crisis.

But on Tuesday the DA touted IPPs as part of the solution. Maimane, and the DA mayors, highlighted how Section 34 of the 2006 Electricity Regulation Act meant the energy minister could allow municipalities to contract directly with IPPs, in consultation with the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa). Cape Town has started proceedings in the North Gauteng High Court to compel Radebe to grant the city such a Section 34 determination so it could procure electricity directly from IPPs.

The DA court case will be crucial. Until Eskom is unbundled — the Budget documentation Annexure W indicates a stand-alone generation entity by mid-2019 — there is no way for IPPs to sell their power to anyone except Eskom. That is unless the energy minister agrees to an exception to allow municipalities to do their thing.

The DA’s timely reminder of its court action to compel the energy minister to do just that was perhaps the most pro-active offering on Tuesday. The residential solar energy proposal recalls the city council’s call to register solar panels, in line with an already existing by-law, in what could be a hint at a future monthly fee or levy. Similar by-laws exist in Cape Town and 18 other DA-run municipalities countrywide.

And the DA plan to unbundle Eskom into two parts is not new. Mazzone most recently raised it on 13 March during ministerial question time in the House. Pravin Gordhan swatted it away.

Unfortunately, the DA’s proposal on separating into three entities is well on its way and in fact, it’s three entities, not two. But we still have a cup of tea available and you are welcome. Thank you.”

Gordhan, like Ramaphosa, has stayed on message for the past four months or so since load shedding kicked in during December 2018, amid flailing and failing power plants. It’s about getting to the bottom of the problem, and then fixing it.

In mid-February Gordhan told MPs on the public enterprises committee that Eskom was in crisis, that load shedding would continue to April as a minimum and it would be a long haul.

On 19 March, that was also the nub of the media update amid a Stage 4 load shedding schedule that would last eight days. Like Ramaphosa, Gordhan apologised for “the additional burden placed on South Africans”, according to SABC News. “We’ll get it right in the next year or two. It’ll take a bit of time.”

That the pressure is on is clear from a series of parliamentary answers published over the past couple of days in response to questions by the DA and EFF on issues from the number of artisans to the cost of transporting coal by train. The standard response was:

The parliamentary question has been forwarded to the state-owned enterprise and the Ministry of Public Enterprises awaits their urgent response. Further information will be conveyed to Parliament as soon as the response is received.”

Only the EFF question on the number of engineers at Eskom got specifics. As of 1 February, Eskom had 3,570 engineers — and an approximately 10% vacancy rate of 382 unfilled posts.

Intellidex analyst Peter Attard Montalto forecast that load shedding was unavoidable at least until mid-2019, although specifics remain unclear.

The surprise here is that the government is providing no hope at all, even if nothing can be done short-term. It will likely be the first week of April before there is any reportback (following the 19 March briefing). The promise is that then there will be a better understanding by the board and shareholder of the problems. However, this does not make sense to us — it is clear to everyone who has spent any time watching Eskom what the problems are…”

And Attard Montalto pointed out the Eskom load shedding has not triggered greater urgency on national energy policy, including a new round of IPPs, promulgating small-scale embedded generation (residential and business solar) and revising regulations so IPPs apply to sources other than renewables such as wind or solar.

This is simply not happening due to a mixture of political blockages, state-centricity and the role of Eskom seems to be a strong driver still in the DoE (Department of Energy) with the elections coming up, combined with the sheer lack of capacity in the DoE, DPE (Department of Public Enterprises), Nersa and so on.”

Such governance stasis allows others across South Africa’s body politic to fracture amid contesting interests and plans.

It’s part of the politics and politicking that means the Eskom crisis is like Dante’s nine circles of hell. And South Africans are caught up in it for the foreseeable future, regardless of politicians’ promises on the election campaign trail. DM


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