South Africa


As battle for Eskom goes nuclear, Pravin Gordhan is once again the target

President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. (Illustrative image | sources: Business Day / Freddy Mavunda | Bloomberg via Getty Images / Waldo Swiegers)

Political pressure is building on President Cyril Ramaphosa to take some sort of action against Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan — to either fire him or to move Eskom to Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe’s department. It appears there are multiple contradictory motives for these calls. But it also demonstrates that the political power the Eskom crisis has may well make or break political careers, and South Africa, in the next 12 months.

A growing group of organisations with different constituencies and interests intensified their demand for action against Pravin Gordhan since the turn of the decade. They range from the Economic Freedom Fighters (who claim that if Gordhan is not removed, they will disrupt Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address), to National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), through to Cosatu (and its affiliated union Nehawu), and the ANC Women’s League leader Bathabile Dlamini.

It seems obvious that these groups want different things.

The EFF wants to put pressure on Ramaphosa because its leaders have an ancient enmity with Gordhan, the sparks of which date back to his role in taking five Limpopo departments into administration nearly 10 years ago.

Numsa wants to protect its members’ jobs at Eskom and its calculation is that any move against Gordhan may well help keep them in their jobs for longer.

The aims of Cosatu and its affiliates may be a little more complicated. It is true that there is a reason to blame Gordhan as the minister responsible for Eskom, a crisis that is stubbornly refusing to go away. That would, however, be like demanding that Tito Mboweni step down as finance minister because the economy is slowing. Or claiming that Ebrahim Patel (who himself comes from the union movement) should be removed from his position as trade and industry minister. As Cosatu has not made these calls, it is open to the charge of politically-convenient inconsistency.

This may lead to suggestions that, in fact, there are other politics at play here. That the real aim is to move Eskom out of the Department of Public Enterprises and into the Department of Energy. This would mean that it would go from Gordhan’s control and into the hands of Gwede Mantashe, who has faced claims that he is trying to protect the coal lobby given his history at the National Union of Mineworkers.

There will be some who see this as a titanic clash between two of Ramaphosa’s most important allies, Gordhan and Mantashe. Certainly, it would be a battle royale between them; both played key roles in the fight to get Jacob Zuma out of the presidency. It could also be argued that the political nous of both of them was required to do that. To now see these two architects of Zuma’s defeat battle each other would be a political spectacle for the ages. Except that the entire country of South Africa is suffering in this battle.

In the end, it would seem likely that Mantashe would win simply because he has a stronger constituency than Gordhan (even though Gordhan was able to beat Zuma almost without a specific constituency at all).

It is unlikely that the truth is nearly as simple as any of these theories.

It seems more likely that there is a complicated mix of different agendas, with different people wanting different, personally advantageous, outcomes.

For example, Bathabile Dlamini has been found by the Constitutional Court to have lied under oath and has been criticised strongly by many people in society for her role in prolonging the involvement of Cash Paymaster Services in the payment of social grants. She has been unapologetic about her support for Zuma and those around him. For Ramaphosa to take her advice (which is to move Eskom to the energy ministry), would surely be against his own interests. She would not be proposing this out of the goodness of her heart or based on her lifelong governing experience. It might well be that she is simply marketing a solution designed solely to weaken Ramaphosa as much as possible.

The same can be said of the EFF as they know Gordhan is important to Ramaphosa and dangerous to them. And their threat to disrupt SONA may well be empty. The crucial difference between Ramaphosa and Zuma is that Ramaphosa has legitimacy, Zuma did not, at the time that they actually disrupted those SONAs. It would be foolish to refuse to allow a president his legal right to speak when he has an approval rating of over 60%.

And claims that Gordhan is “incompetent” because of a lack of technical skill in power production can hardly stand up either. The vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala wrote in City Press this weekend that no Cabinet minister since 1994 has had an undergraduate degree in engineering. The same is probably true for most cabinets around the world, politicians tend to be managers and lawyers (with a sprinkling of doctors: almost all of our health ministers have been medical doctors), rather than engineers. And that doesn’t bar them from leading a department of experts.

Then there is the usual political problem. If Gordhan is removed from his position, who would take over?

There is no simple answer to this. Eskom is surely both a treasure trove of patronage and a political wrecking ground. Anyone who is in charge of it is likely to be blamed by many voters for any load shedding. Which means it is a stage 6 disaster area for anyone with ambition.

The public enterprises ministry is not just about Eskom. Both SAA and Denel could need more hard decisions to be made soon. It is not a portfolio with the luxury of time, it is a portfolio of an unending crisis.

Moving Eskom to the energy ministry doesn’t solve anything either. Mantashe would now be the man blamed for whatever continues to go wrong. This could be dangerous for Ramaphosa as one of his most important (nominal) allies would now also be vulnerable. In other words, Eskom could be used first to weaken Gordhan and then Mantashe. This could be important for Ramaphosa in the long run as both of his key allies could end up on a scrapheap of political history.

In the meantime, it is obvious to everyone that Eskom needs firm action immediately. There is also an urgent need to deal with the regulation of electricity production to make it easier for people to produce their own electricity and to sell it. It is also still true that when it comes to producing enough electricity for South Africa, it is not the physics and technical problems that hold us back, but the politics.

The electricity crisis is entirely the fault of the ANC, no one else. For the moment it appears, there is still no strong enough desire to fix it. If that doesn’t change soonest, life in South Africa will turn dramatically worse. DM


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