South Africa

POWER CRISIS: VIEWPOINT

Eskom must be declared a national disaster to ward off Stage 6 power cuts and foil sabotage

The Eskom Holdings Kendal power station in Delmas. (Photo: Nadine Hutton / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Emissions rise from the Eskom Holdings Kusile coal-fired power station near Witbank in Mpumalanga. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Eskom’s Matimba Power Station in Lephalale, Limpopo. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

The troika of Eskom CEO, board chairperson and Pravin Gordhan is insufficient firepower for the crisis.

My Eskom se Push app pings all day long to warn about power cuts after the utility announced that it would move from Stage 2 to Stage 4 on Monday, 8 November. That it gave the public 25 minutes’ warning tells you how bad things are.  

The regular pinging from the app also reveals that power cuts are probably higher than Stage 4 already, as energy analyst Ted Blom has warned. In Johannesburg, where I live, power availability is less than Stage 4 suggests. According to City Power, the city, which contributes 15% to GDP, faces an additional 421 power cuts a day across the city. City Power runs part of the city’s grid, and Eskom the other part, and there are regular planned and unplanned outages. In December 2019, Eskom announced Stage 6 load shedding, but 2021 blackouts are worse than that period, the CSIR has found.   

This situation is an emergency, and the government must declare electricity and Eskom a state of national disaster as it did with Covid-19. The impacts on South Africa’s security are severe, and the presidential task team which is managing the electricity crisis is not up to the task. Electricity shortages pinch a Covid economic recovery, and new investment (domestic and foreign) can’t start with a patchy supply. 

Deputy President David Mabuza chairs what used to be called the Eskom war room but it is now the political task team. It meets weekly (but not every week recently, says Mabuza’s spokesperson, Matshepo Seedat). The group includes Cabinet members and Eskom executives, but neither the structure nor the leaders are up to the task, as the perilous decline in electricity shows.   

Gordhan’s SARS management tactics not working at Eskom

The political governance of Eskom is a nightmare. Mabuza was out of South Africa in Russia for most of the year, and presumably, Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan was at the helm of the political team. 

But what worked for him at SARS, where he masterminded the transformation of the tax-collection agency into a world-class institution, is not working at Eskom. His bag of fail-safe tactics (walk the floor of power stations, let the board govern, get staff behind a higher purpose) is flailing at Eskom. Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter, his COO Andre Oberholzer and spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha are struggling, as the Eskom Files series on News24 reveals.  

ESKOM CEO, André de Ruyter. (Photo: Gallo Images/Phil Magakoe)

Eskom is still in the grip of mafias

According to weekend reports, staff had been arrested for fuel theft of R100-million at the Tutuka power station, which had been beset by internal saboteurs. By Sunday, Eskom reported an unspecified major incident in Zambia, which, with diesel reserve shortages, saw power cuts accelerated to Stage 4. News24 also reported that only one of four units at the new power station, Kusile, is working. Energy analyst Chris Yelland said he thought it had been handed over to Eskom by contractors prematurely.    

The Eskom management team is struggling. Gordhan sounded like he was on Mars. He declared to the media that the utility needed to find emergency power solutions like those used by California when its grid collapsed and engineers rigged up emergency power in two months. 

He is the minister in charge of Eskom, so why not just do it? At the other end of town, speaking in Soweto, President Cyril Ramaphosa said Eskom kept him up at night and it was a “complex” problem. The President is another leader who sounds like he isn’t the head honcho, perhaps because he lives in a bubble and doesn’t suffer the ignominies of regular cuts. 

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe. (Photo: Flickr / Energy Capital & Power)

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe spends most of his time dissing renewable energy sources or explaining why the regulatory timetable to hook up clean emergency energy supplies for South Africa can’t speed up emergency power or own generation. What a bunch of Neros, fiddling while Mzansi burns. A different plan is needed.   

Layered sabotage

Johannesburg and Gqeberha now regularly have power cuts that last for days, not hours, building out the hypothesis that we are way past Stage 4 power cuts in many parts of the country.  

A City Power technician told me that Eskom staff were on a go-slow because of an overtime dispute, so they didn’t pitch every time the switches needed to be made to power back up after a scheduled power cut. It’s a complex situation to shut systems down and bring them back up, and it’s easy to throw a spanner in the works. 

From reports it’s clear that layers of sabotage are at play at Eskom as Makgoba, De Ruyter and his team struggle to clean up and keep the lights on simultaneously. The clean-up has disrupted mafias who accumulated rents running into billions of rands. The teetering fleet of power stations, most of them in remote locations, is an easy target for the disaffected.

Declare Eskom a state of national disaster 

Powerful constituencies are baying for blood. “The Black Business Council is of the view that the country should acknowledge that the Eskom leadership is completely overwhelmed, inept and out of its depth. They simply don’t seem to have a handle on this crisis,” said the council’s CEO, Kganki Matabane, who welcomed De Ruyter’s appointment in November 2019. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which organises workers at Eskom, also made an off-their-heads statement about the executive and board. 

In a crisis, solutions are often sought in purges, but that won’t solve the electricity question.  

Eskom’s Grootvlei coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga on 7 August 2019. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Instead, South Africa can declare a national disaster at Eskom and treat it with the same intensity and attention as the Covid pandemic. What are valuable lessons we have learnt? At the moment, Eskom is communicating via a single news platform and in one-way press releases, which are top-down and disempowering methods of communication. 

Instead, the public needs a daily, scheduled situation update, as we get with Covid, so you can plan around it and feel the empowering effects of information. South Africans have been made Covid-literate through good details – we need to be made grid-literate. Makgoba, Gordhan, De Ruyter and Mantshantsha must be daily fixtures telling us what is happening with the fleet of power stations. Ramaphosa should convene electricity “family meetings” to update the nation on progress; sleepless nights are not a leadership solution to a crisis now running into its second decade.  

On new energy forms, Mantashe and Nersa must update the country on when, where and how to bring the new energy onstream. Nersa’s communication system is archaic, and its bureaucratic licensing system has not changed since the Eighties. Business twinned with the government to tackle Covid; it needs to do the same on electricity. 

Better communication and enhanced civil society empowerment will make the public a massive counterfoil to the saboteurs and spoilers currently holding South Africa hostage.  

Eskom is not too big to fail, and its slow-burn is taking the country down the tubes with it. DM

(Photo: thewc.co.za/Wikipedia)
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All Comments 24

  • And the ANC blames Eskom for their loss at the polls! If it wasn’t so serious it would be funny.
    I have had business dealings with Eskom for years and I can assure you 90% of their current “engineers” are incompetent, disinterested and don’t have a clue since the very competent and hard working grey beards left.
    Their BBBEE partners / preferred suppliers have less of a clue and their only interest is making money for their next Ferrari. When Eskom pays thousands of Rands for toilet paper etc. just imagine what they (actually we, the taxpayers and consumers) are paying for engineered products.
    And when something goes wrong?? Call the actual non-BBBEE supplier to fix it. the middlemen are NOWHERE to be found.
    I think De Ruyter is doing a good job, with NO support from his political masters. We need to give him that emergency support and backing, with private sector, proper professionals helping, regardless of colour.
    And the unions? Do they tell them to pay for their electricity? I doubt it!

    • It is not only in Eskom that all the competent professional staff have been moved out – the same with roads where provincial roads with the exception of the Western Cape are adjudged t be “unfit for purpose” based on world accepted standards.

  • Words are meaningless. Action is all that counts and we won’t see squat while the ANC are in charge. They are too afraid to admit how bad things truly are and get help from the private sector and foreign players.

    If I were running things I’d bring in overseas experts for 6 months to a year to assist the company with repairs, while fast-tracking renewable/low carbon solutions as quickly as possible. California added 4000MW to their grid in two months! TWO! MONTHS!

  • Things wouldn’t have been quite as bad had Minister Mantashe acted with intent after the stage 6 shock in December 2019. Instead he wasted months pushing the nuclear procurement and then running a poorly conceived and slow ’emergency power procurement plan’, with nothing to show 23 months after it was mooted.

  • Interesting suggestion. Almost funny that it takes a member of the public to make the suggestion i.s.o. one of the leaders of our country whos job it is to be thinking about this.

  • Machines, especially neglected and poorly maintained and badly built ones, cut no slack for cadres, politicians, incompetents and inexperienced people. They only understand good engineering, and the good hard working honest engineers were drummed out of Eskom to be replaced by ????
    The smart alecks who wish to fire de Ruyter and Oberholzer are displaying their ignorance. If they succeed just who do they think could do any better?

  • When Eskom, limping, has to procure oil from a BEE middleman, even though the oil companies have a BBBEE certificate, is what creates this national disaster and Stage 6 power.

    ANC corruption, state capture, cadre deployment are the sabotage, and that is what needs to be foiled.

    The Black Business Council is barking up the wrong Pylon.

  • Gwede Mantashe should be fired first! Incompetence, cadre deployment, massive cortuption and theft – it is a national disaster! How do you not notice until R100million worth is stolen? Bring in outside experts and the ask the FIB for help. Better, ask the KGB- they are pretty brutal right?

  • The President stated that we would roll out renewable energy in a big way but Gwede Mantashe is up to his armpits in the coal industry. So nothing gets going in the renewable space .
    It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog.

  • Is Eskom considering buying excess capacity from members of the public who have installed Solar PV panels?

    If not, why not?

    It would be a win-win situation. Eskom would increase its capacity and those who have invested in Solar could recoup some of their costs.

  • The lack of apparent urgency to deal with the problem is itself alarming. I guess the difference between a pandemic and rolling blackouts is that the Eskom problem is entirely man made. A real discussion of the problem will entail talking about corruption, incompetence, political interference, nuclear pigheadedness, unions only interested in their members and so on. Of course, that ain’t gonna happen. So we have to solve a problem without ever really owning up to what went wrong. It’s much easier to talk about wet coal or a bolt in a turbine or whatever.

  • Fixing eskom can’t be that hard. Start by firing all power station management and hiring in replacements from Germany.

    Then fire everyone in procurement and start again, best again with expats.

    Any chance of this happening? Zero. Any chance of fixing eskom? Also zero

  • ESKOM is sick. This patient does not need a governmental full body cast or a dribble of cash saline drip. It needs a full body transfusion to flush out the parasitic elements, then the healing can begin. Bolleurs has the right idea to use fresh blood from a healthy donor.

  • Urgently move responsibility for renewable energy from Gwede to a task team headed by an engineer of integrity to speed up the closing of the MW gap! There is no shortcut to solve insufficient generation capacity. More than half of the coal fired generation capacity is not available 100% of the time. This will not be fixed quickly. The only option is to roll out renewable energy which has much shorter construction lead times than coal. Why not immediately incentivise residential property owners to install solar energy which can be fed into the national grid? This alone can significantly reduce rolling load shedding. Time for talking is long over. Now Action for SA is required!

  • A disaster indeed. Anyone who thinks this bunch of bumbling ANC incompetents who think only of self interest can fix Eskom is living in a dream world. Starting with Mbeki Eskom has been in a downward spiral as those who knew what they were doing were ditched in favour of unqualified ANC deployed lackeys. Until some form of private participation in large scale power supply is accepted SA will stumble from crisis to crisis with no hope of recovery. The looting continues!

  • Good analysis. Fixing Eskom will require dismantling deeply embedded patronage networks that allow the ANC to function. This is why there is little support from government for doing so. They seem focussed on extracting as much as they can irregardless of the consequences to the nation. This is what is giving Cyril sleepless nights. He knows what needs to be done, but the patronage glue that holds the ANC together is vital for the survival of the organisation in its present form.

  • Absolutely, a national crisis needs to be declared, the system is really at the breaking point, but it seems that the government still fails to take the crisis sufficiently seriously. Minister Mantashe must immediately be replaced with the strongest possible energy expert, his recalcitrance and inaction have continued to worsen the crisis. There should be a special crime unit established to specifically root out the corruption in Eskom, as it seems it is deeper and more pernicious than imaginable. As other commentators have suggested, we need to get substantial foreign expertise to start sorting out the current woeful state of the system. We need to take advantage of all of the possible financing to get alternative power sources, particularly renewable ones, on line as urgently as possible.

    We also need to look at electricity at the municipal level, as there seems to be a great deal of corruption going on there, and poor maintenance of infrastructure is also leading to collapse. In Johannesburg, there is apparently a much heralded deal to procure additional power, but what benefit is the City seeing from the deal?

  • I sympathise with Eskom being forced by the courts to supply non-paying municipalities. This is a disaster for their cash flow. One has to look to the top. Why is Pravin helping SAA with its dead cat bounce while the vitally important Eskom is left in the lurch? The ANC government should take over the debt of their failed municipalities and pay Eskom out in full. This cash flow boost would assist with procurement of spares and contractors with the technical know-how to fix at least some of the issues. Please do this before Cyril decides to call in theCubans.
    Meanwhile hats off to de Ruyter and Oberholzer and others sweating blood in the fight against the top and bottom of this corrupt organisation.

  • Support Leonard Stoch’s proposal. A subsidy to roll out more solar geysers for those that cannot afford the full solar / inverter system. Higher volumes will also assist in bring the price of Solar panels and batteries down resulting in a. increase in demand. Eskom can use the money “wasted” on diesel to incentivise more homes to convert and put power back into the grid as well.

  • All of the above comments are valid and true to one extent or another but Popetrevorjohn hit the nail on the head with respect to the patronage networks. Dismantling those networks will lead to the destruction of this country because they’ve already externalised the proceeds of crime and don’t care a rats bum about the people of this country. I should imagine that a large portion of the ANC NEC occupy very senior positions in those networks.

  • Meanwhile the Karpowerships are lurking in the background, waiting for the collapse. My conspiracy-mode is on full alert. Too many inexplicable outages all of a sudden.

  • Fully supportive of declaring a national disaster as quickly as possible. Eskom is dying the slow death of a thousand small cuts, one at a time, and it is close to being terminal with a long country wide blackout.

  • National Disaster – YES. If no real new capacity comes on line in 4 years expect stage 6 load shedding to be more frequent. A simulation with the last 3 years as the historical trend, add a lost boiler ( 2 years to repair) every 2 years due to calamity, decreased (age) availability overall per year and this may provide stage 6, 2 x 2022, 3 x 2023, 4 x 2024. Equate this to loss of exports of raw materials, less tax to SARS, and no money in Treasury as social grants are number 1 priority over Eskom maintenance. The spiral down is critical to stop.

  • ‘Business twinned with the government to tackle Covid; it needs to do the same on electricity’. We know this would work, but will they?

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