The ANC is 108 years old this month and party leaders are gearing up to celebrate at a stadium in Kimberley on Saturday, alongside tens of thousands of party supporters. In the days leading up to the rally, Cabinet ministers and the ANC’s Top Six have been pressing the flesh and addressing audiences in the often neglected Northern Cape province.
But already it is clear that the issue dampening this year’s festivities will be Eskom.
Addressing a community meeting in Roodepan, outside Kimberley, President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday pleaded with residents for patience over the electricity crisis, promising that Eskom’s problems will be resolved “soon”.
On the same day, deputy president David Mabuza told journalists in Kimberley that he believed Ramaphosa had been “misled” by Eskom when the president pledged to the country in December 2019 that there would be no load shedding until at least January 13 2020.
In reality, rolling blackouts began again just four days into the new year, with Eskom able to manage just 56.7% of its required electricity output in the first week of 2020. Adding to concerns is the fact that many South African businesses are not yet back at work — meaning that demand is set to rise substantially as January continues. A reprieve from load shedding is not expected within the next few weeks.
The communication with the public as to the Eskom status quo has been confusing and piecemeal over the past month. (On Thursday, Eskom failed to respond to emails, phone calls and WhatsApps from Daily Maverick with questions.)
A well-meaning (but confusing) announcement this week that Eskom would be initiating load shedding earlier than usual on Wednesday 8 January in order to accommodate the release of matric results may also unintentionally have fuelled the perception that load shedding is deployed capriciously.
New Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter is known to have officially taken up his new job on Monday 6 January, but thus far there has been no public word from De Ruyter. COO Jan Oberholzer has been dispensing explanations to the media as best he can, but these often raise more questions than they answer.
This week Oberholzer told Cape Talk, for instance, that the conveyor belt breakdowns at Medupi which were the catalyst for the latest round of load shedding were the result of design flaws.
“I have instructed our designers to redesign the coal handling,” Oberholzer said, adding that whatever problems were being experienced at Medupi were likely to be replicated at South Africa’s other newest power plant, Kusile.
How these belts were so poorly designed in the first place is unclear. Oberholzer said Eskom had learnt from the mistakes of inadequate maintenance afflicting the older plants and would not repeat the error with Medupi and Kusile. But here the power parastatal finds itself in a Catch 22: Medupi needs to be taken offline for — in Oberholzer’s estimation — two-and-a-half months for maintenance and design modifications, but it can’t be because the system needs the power it generates at the moment.
Conflicting messaging continues to reign. In December 2019, after the country experienced the unprecedented Stage 6 load shedding, President Ramaphosa blamed “sabotage”, and wet coal.
But shortly afterwards, Oberholzer would tell City Press:
“The main cause of the load shedding was not sabotage or rain or whatever. After 12 years of neglecting our power stations, our system is unpredictable and unreliable. I’m not talking about putting on a band-aid, I mean that real, deep maintenance is required.”
Eskom has also sought to downplay the corrosive effects of State Capture on its financial dysfunction. In court this week, as part of a petition to allow it to raise electricity tariffs by 16.6%, Eskom claimed that its financial problems were “primarily” the result of “inadequate tariff increases” rather than State Capture.
Yet in the same December interview with City Press, Oberholzer said:
“Eskom is captured. That’s all. It’s hard to find the right words. Since returning, I’ve realised that greed is an untreatable disease. I’m now working with the Special Investigative Unit. The capture runs right through the entire organisation, not just the leadership. It also doesn’t help when you work with unethical contractors and suppliers. It’s a cancer, and you have to cut it out.”
Thursday’s claim from DD Mabuza that Ramaphosa was “misled” by Eskom as to the scale of the problem in December, if accurate, would be an indication that the parastatal’s management team is not playing open cards not just with the public, but even with the head of government.
The week of what is known as the “January 8 statement”, although celebrations sometimes take place a few days after that date, is usually an opportunity for ANC bigwigs to reflect on the progress made by the party over the course of its rule since the onset of democracy.
One of the ANC’s favourite statistics — and justifiably so — has been the advancements made in bringing electricity to South Africans during the democratic era.
“In 1994, only 36% of the population and only 12% of people in rural communities had access to electricity. Today, eight out of 10 South Africans, including those in rural areas, have their homes electrified,” the party said in 2019.
But the question hanging over this week’s celebrations — as the Northern Cape suffers the effects of load shedding along with the rest of the country — is: how meaningful is that achievement if the necessary electricity cannot be generated?
Two days ahead of the big birthday party, it has emerged that the World Bank has predicted 0.9% growth for South Africa in 2020, as opposed to the 2% achieved over the past seven years. Eskom is a major contributor to that depressed outlook.
In the same week, meanwhile, a study found that the country’s new employment prospects for the first quarter of 2020 are the weakest they have been in five years.
Endless talk of sabotage, wet coal and conveyor belt failures obscures the wider picture: that Eskom’s inability to meet South Africa’s electricity needs is dragging the economy down with it and irrevocably tarnishing the ANC’s record of governance.
When President Ramaphosa reads the ANC’s birthday statement on Saturday at the Kimberley rally, an address which fails to acknowledge the gravity of the Eskom crisis will be nothing short of dishonest. No amount of cake-cutting can fudge this issue. DM
"Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth" ~ Aristotle