South Africa


Powerless, Clueless, Hopeless: ANC’s complete & sustained failure to deliver electricity will be punished at the polls

Powerless, Clueless, Hopeless: ANC’s complete & sustained failure to deliver electricity will be punished at the polls
Power lines in Johannesburg, South Africa, 10 November 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The latest power cuts, which may not have even peaked at Stage 6, have once again ignited concerns about this country’s future and posed serious questions about our politics. Considering the magnitude of our problems with Eskom, perhaps this is a reasonable time to ask whether those running South Africa have the expertise, or power, to fix Eskom. Or whether the political heads really understand the pain that this crisis is inflicting on our economy and on people’s lives.

Given the history of the ANC’s utter mismanagement of our power grid, and that the party itself has said that load shedding costs it votes, this problem again reveals the limits of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s real power and his ability to manage the country.

It may be all but forgotten now, but it was with the appointment of the current board of Eskom that Ramaphosa first revealed the political power he had gained through his victory at Nasrec in 2017. He was still deputy president, with Jacob Zuma as president in January 2018. Anoj Singh and Matshela Koko were still at the power utility.

With one move, Ramaphosa showed that he was boss. In a statement, he appointed a new board and instructed it to remove executives accused of corruption, including Koko and Singh.

It was the first open display of Ramaphosa’s political power, and it set the scene for the recall and removal of Zuma on Valentine’s Day a month later.

That demonstrated Ramaphosa’s power – but how times have changed.

It appears Eskom has once again revealed the president’s political power reserve – and how little there is of it these days.

Despite a series of promises, Ramaphosa has simply not been able to ensure a proper supply of electricity for the country. As long ago as 2015, he promised, while still deputy president, that “in another 18 months to two years” we could forget about load shedding.

The situation at Eskom is complicated. As has been said many times by many people, no history of Eskom would be complete without remembering the 1998 Electricity White Paper that predicted load shedding in 2007; the detailed testimony and the findings against Brian Molefe, Koko, McKinsey and others who looted Eskom; and then the other problems it currently faces.

This includes the perception that Eskom is virtually under attack from all quarters.

There are gangs who steal diesel from power stations, unions which Eskom says use violence and threats against workers who refuse to go on strike, and then, the unbelievable levels of corruption within the utility itself. 

At one point, the Special Investigating Unit recommended that 5,500 people who work at Eskom should be referred for disciplinary action. That’s a staggering number for an organisations with a total staff complement of about 42,000.

But, as Ferial Haffajee noted on these pages after another intense bout of load shedding two full years ago, “load shedding is like an X-ray revealing the weaknesses of Ramaphosa’s presidency and his inability to deliver on his promises, no matter how well meaning his intentions”.

And this is his biggest problem – the fact that he made promises he has failed to keep.

Get updates, analysis and guides to understanding and surviving the power cuts all in one place

The same is true for Eskom’s CEO, André de Ruyter. He has faced huge opposition from many quarters. 

Some questioned his real experience as someone who once worked in the coal sector for Sasol and then as CEO for Nampak. Organisations like the Black Business Council have repeatedly called for him to go, with suggestions that it was not appropriate for a white man to be appointed to this post in the first place.

His defenders have suggested that at least some of the opposition to his presence is motivated by those who want to continue their corruption.

But again, De Ruyter’s real problem is the promises that he, too, has made to end the rolling blackouts.

There are many other people who bear responsibility, and yet appear to receive less blame for what is happening:

  • Deputy President David Mabuza is technically in charge of an energy “war room” to deal with the crisis. There is literally no evidence to suggest that he has made any contribution whatsoever to fixing the problem.
  • Gwede Mantashe is the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources. His critics have regularly accused him of failing to make it easier for new power to be added to the grid. He is also in charge of the various processes that are supposed to help that happen.

The CEO of Business Leadership SA and Eskom board member Busisiwe Mavuso wrote in Business Day on Monday that “had the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme not been stalled by corrupt political interests from 2015 to 2019, the energy plants from bid window 5 would have been operational and SA would have had half the load shedding last year”.

That is a stinging criticism.

But Mantashe has consistently defended himself, saying that he cannot allow a failure in the electricity market, and that to rely on renewable energy sources (which can be built in two years, compared with coal and nuclear which take around a decade) would be a colossal mistake. And he continues to campaign for nuclear energy despite the fact that power from a new nuclear facility would not flow before 2035.

Rolling blackouts – Six stages of Eskom-induced grief and pain

To be clear, nuclear power is not something with which you should take short cuts.

Then there is Pravin Gordhan, the Minister of Public Enterprises, a portfolio that has political authority over Eskom itself. He has remained largely quiet, and tends to only speak on these issues at moments of gravest crisis.

What is clear from this mixture of political interests, characters and intrigue, is that this system and the people in it are simply not working. If they were, the lights would not be going out with such deadly regularity.

What makes this more astounding is that there is important evidence that load shedding costs the governing party votes. The party’s deputy Secretary General, Jessie Duarte, before she died, said exactly that: that one of the reasons for the party’s poor showing in last year’s local elections was the intense load shedding in the days before the polls.

If the ANC was focused on winning in 2024, and if its government was able to fix the problems created by Eskom, they would presumably do so.

The fact it has failed to do this perhaps suggests that both the ANC and its government simply do not have the capacity to resolve these problems.

During the last bout of Stage 6 blackouts, Ramaphosa eventually made a series of announcements suggesting that the private sector would be playing a bigger role in the provision of electricity. While these reforms were generally welcomed, it was not clear why it had taken so long for him to act, and to make these changes.

At least one person who is working with the Presidency on these issues, Professor Sampson Mamphweli, has suggested that people will see the results of these reforms in the next 18 months to two years. He remains adamant that change is coming.

Those who will be running the ANC’s election campaign may well be hoping that he is right.

Because, if he is not, it is entirely likely that load shedding – and the ANC’s complete and sustained failure to deal with Eskom – is what loses it the 2024 election. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Flint says:

    Consider for a moment that Karpowerships are regarded as temporary and very expensive solutions to a power shortage. Consider also that the ANC has proposed a 20 year contract with this power source and surely the only logical conclusion is that the ANC is acknowledging that power shortages are to be with us for another 20 years on top of the 15 years of intermittent load shedding we have already experienced.

    • Peter Smith says:

      Germany installed 7 GW of PV solar each year for 5 years in a row. Equivalent to 4 Medupis per year. The capital interest costs are less that the cost of the coal. Eskom is not even paying carbon tax. Which why the USA is shutting down 1000 power stations. The total global installation of PV last year was 165 GW. Eskom installed 0GW. The ANC wants Coal because Lethuli House has kickback agreements with all Eskom suppliers including coal. The ANC wants a 20 year agreement to ensure the kickbacks continue.

    • Paul du Toit says:

      Kat power ship is nothing more than a guarantee of backhanders & looting for a guaranteed 20 years funded from debts. The whole idea should remain where it currently is, in the bin.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Electricity is just the canary in the coal mine and something that can’t be hidden from the country. But just as bad are the railways, ports, education, public health, water affairs, sewage, the list is pretty endless

    • Russ H says:

      100%. Imagine when the water distribution fails like Eskom has !

      • Nick Griffon says:

        This is not that far off.

        • Alison Immelman Immelman says:

          I never go to the tap expecting to find water. I’m just pleasantly surprised when there is. And this in the province with disastrous floods. “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”.

      • Peter Dexter says:

        It is starting to fail. Sewage treatment plants need power and competent people; most have neither so raw sewage flows back into many rivers from which we draw our drinking water. It’s all interconnected and three components are necessary to make it work: Competence, integrity and accountability.

  • Clare Yeowell says:

    It is not just the ANC’s complete and sustained failure to deal with Eskom, it’s their complete and sustained failure across the board, in every aspect of governance.

    • Hulme Scholes says:

      Well said. But it’s worse – the ANC does not and has never ever, not for one second, believed in democracy. They rode that ticket to get into power and then the stealing started. It is as simple as that. You do not get that rotten in 28 years, you have always been rotten. The pattern is the same – ANC in South Africa, FRELIMO in Mozambique, ZANU PF in Zimbabwe. It is galactically naive to think that any of these “Liberation Movements” ever really believed in the principles that they pretended to champion to get into power. They are as bad as the lot that they replace, self – serving, racist, dishonest, brutal and disgusting.

      • Eon van Wyk says:

        “Its our time to eat” rings true for each of these liberation movements.

        Its like the dog trying to catch the car. It only knows to chase it but won’t know what to do when it actually catches the car.

      • Malcolm McManus says:

        You’ve hit the nail on the head. And the rest of the world backed & assisted these horrid people to gain control. These liberators are worse than their predecessors, and their supporters will follow them to the death no matter what. I agree with the sanctions against Zimbabwe. After the fall of Mugabe they chose Zanu PF again, when they had the best chance ever of getting rid of them. They can only blame themselves.

      • Craig King says:

        And yet we were told by the liberals in our midst that these “liberation movements” would be better for everybody. Unfortunately the only people better off are the connected and the nomenklatura. The liberals now blame apartheid for the failures of the liberators.

        We have a long road to walk still.

        • Johann Olivier says:

          We do have a long road to walk if we’re going to blame liberal thought for this disaster. It has NOTHING to do with liberal or conservative values. It has everything to do with incompetence, theft and corruption. And Apartheid’s shadow is a long shadow. Official Apartheid reigned from ’48 to ’94. Unofficial apartheid for decades, if not centuries, before that.

        • Malcolm McManus says:

          The Liberals all buggered off to Australia after they got their world class degrees towards the end of apartheid.

    • Gerrie Pretorius says:

      Exactly! Well said.

  • Paul Zille says:

    Your words in god’s ear.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Eskom and its ailing infrastructure is just the whipping boy. The danger signs started flashing 25 years ago and went to red alert 15 years ago. The failure has been the lack of political will to plan for capacity and take all the necessary steps to ensure it – no matter what the personal or governmental consequences. The state and its electorate are equally culpable.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    If there are those that think the EFF would do do a better job, they’ve got another thing coming!
    BEE policies within the SOE’s have completely destroyed South African infrastructure. Apart from being racist these policies have highlighted the management capabilities of the ANC – a party that has managed to bankrupt itself along with South Africa’s reputation and standing in the world. So long to Mandela’s Rainbow nation dreams…..

  • Johan Buys says:

    I would be less disgusted if the mess was down to uninformed decisions or sincere disagreement on strategy. It isn’t. I can trace almost all the worst decisions and actions to promotion of cadre interests. The Luthuli economic interest in the two mega coal disaster projects. The Gupta drain at Eskom HO. The Zupta coal mine hijack funded by Eskom. The former chair of nersa being part owner of the offensively priced early solar projects. Putin’s bribe to promote nuclear from Russia. The cadre connections in IPP so-called BEE. The family tree at the top that will dominate “private sector” energy by 2030. Delaying 8GW of IPP since 2016 so that family members can supply coal and diesel. The wholesale evisceration of Eskom skills, replacing them with too many vastly overpaid cadres. The minister’s wife having a share in the deeply corrupt Turkish powership plan.
    It is not a case of forgive them for they know not what they do. These thugs knew and still know exactly what they do. We’ve made a business decision to self-provision roughly 90%. Side-benefit is it is pro environment. Bonus is it also cheaper than the circus and cherry on top is the clowns cannot break it – if they try we add another 300kW solar and cut the cable.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    Eskom’s history throughout democracy has been a BEE experiment gone badly wrong, supported by the unions. There has been a huge brain drain from Eskom and cadre deployment and thieving on a large scale. Unfortunately it is powerless to fix itself. We are in for huge problems going forward.

    • John Strydom says:

      Yes, the BEE experiment, as well-intentioned as it was, has been a total failure.
      Until this is admitted, and rectified, it seems to me nothing can improve: education, health care, the entire sorry lot.

  • roland rink says:

    Has any member of parliament ever experienced a “power outage”????

  • James Larkin says:

    It seems that electricity is the only power that the ANC is prepared to let go

  • André Pelser says:

    The problem is that the president and his enormous cabinet are not affected by the power cuts, nor is their lifestyle affected by the state of the economy.

  • Kelsey Boyce says:

    Pause and think that perhaps this has been Cyril’s master plan from the get go – lose the ANC votes in the polls and save the country as he knows that SA lead by the ANC will never survive. Wishful thinking I suppose but for his success in achieving losses for the ANC in the polls I am grateful for him.

  • AJ S says:

    It seems unlikely to me that citizens who have observed the ANC in power since 1994 will suddenly change their minds based on the recent performance of Eskom.
    It baffles me that Stephen (and others) seems to think that most voters think this way when it has become clear that we don’t.
    The outcome of the next election in 2024 will be determined by a lot more than our views on load-shedding.
    The ANC received two big electoral mandates in 2009 and 2014 despite many obvious organisational failures.

  • Hugo Luyt says:

    The ANC machine is built on corruption. Good governance is the enemy of corruption. Good governance is the enemy of the ANC.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    I think you are incorrect to blame the ANC for the problems at ESKOM. The first problem is a President who suffers from indecision and who is unable to crack the whip to get the results that are required from the required people. He thinks he must satisfy friends like Pravin whose time to show him the door along with de Ruyter and the incompetent board led by the useless Makgoba! Busi Mavuso has been say a load of rubbish for too long and Hlengwa and the IFP ought to have to have not apologised to her and any of the clowns at ESKOM! When they were appointed to the board along with the jockey on a dead horse called de Ruyter they knew what the situation was at Eskom and what was expected of them. Instead, we have a board and a CEO that has no focus and purpose because they are looking at renewables and IPPs which is not their mandate ! The failure of de Ruyter at SASOL and NAMPAK was this lack of focus and understanding what is the purpose of a CEO. His purpose is to run the Eskom coal fleet and ensure proper maintenance and to build other coal power stations.
    If he wants renewables he must leave Eskom and create his own company and not destroy our country! Cyril must bring Calitz who was overlooked by Pravin
    to turn the situation around and have a budget for energy build rather than the poppy dice he is playing with IPPs and other thieves with sharp shoes and teeth.
    Gordhan must go!

    • Gerrie Pretorius says:

      You can appoint whoever you want at Eskom. While the anc has any whatsoever influence at the organization it will NEVER operate effectively. Getting rid of thousands of useless unproductive employees who were purely appointed to make unemployment numbers look better, is the first place to start.

    • Hermann Funk says:

      I have no idea whether de Ruyter is competent or not. However you TOTALLY ignore that ESKOM was in a mess loooong before he joined. The rot that started about 20 years ago was compounded by your beloved ANC under the incompetent Zuma.

    • Peter Wanliss says:

      Certainly not the fault of the ANC. It was those blighters at that investment company, Charter House, who insisted on having Hitachi install the wrong boilers. Then, when we were on the brink of sourcing a flotilla (or was it a fleet?) of Russian Nuclear Power Stations, the deal already signed by Pres. Zuma, there was all the hoo-hah about the finance minister appointed by those nice Indian gentlemen. If it weren’t for that, the Russian power stations would probably already have been offloaded, assembled and supplying the continent with Soviet-style electricity. We won’t mention the side-shows, such as continual provoking of unions by threating to employ so-called competent non-BEE, non-unionised experts, but we cannot leave out the arch-culprit, Mr de Ruyter. De Ruyter must have known when he accepted the position of CEO that ESKOM had absolutely no money to build new power stations. So why didn’t he bring his own money, if he wanted the job so badly? The same goes for the board – not one of them has put their money where their mouth is. Why not appoint those people from Denel, SAA, PRASA, and so on? They have all the money needed!

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Privatise Eskom, make it a franchise business with De Ryter at the helm and we will all have reliable, clean sustainable energy again. Get rid of the children that are running this country (into the ground) and put the adults back in charge!

  • André van Niekerk says:

    The government MAY directly procure capacity without the limitation of the supply chain regulations – it may do so in an emergency. They only need to be transparent about it.
    They can, for the greater good, decide to let go of the “restrictions” that are in place – i.e. matters of local content requirements, local “business partners” (read “sharing in the spoils”), BEEE requirements, etc.
    They may take any crisis related steps to solve this matter technically.
    The conclusion therefore is that the crisis continues, due the lack of WILL to make it happen.
    So, some of the reasons we are stuck with this situation is:
    1. The ANC leaders do not put the needs of the country first.
    2. The demands of the unions outweigh the needs of the populace. E.g. the unions are blocking the appointment of competent technical specialists based on so-called transformation targets. In other words, we cannot allow the situation to be resolved if the majority of the available skills are white.
    3. The previous point also puts the ANC elections at risk – the unions have always been in a position to rule the roost, even though indirectly. The non-market-related benefits of their members are more important than more job opportunities for the unemployed and the destruction of the economy. And the ANC leaders support this.

    No individual manager at Eskom (read De Ruyter and Mabuza) will have success unless the power of the unions are curtailed. Any threats to this position leads to increased sabotage.

  • André van Niekerk says:

    to continue:

    1. President, decide to take action.
    2. Then take action – use your executive powers.
    3. Tell the unions and opposition which emergency steps you are taking, outside of the current limitations, and communicate the process so there can be no opportunity for, or fear of, corruption or graft.
    4. Let the political game-players do as they wish, you will be supported by the rest of South Africa.

  • Johan Botha says:

    Who is funding all the power generators being used by The President, Cabinet Ministers, Parliamentarians and other government appointees? Why not investigate and expose. They are using our tax money to avoid being in the dark.

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Surely nobody is surprised at the consequences of RET and the involvement of politicians in the executive function.

  • John Counihan says:

    Unfortunately, Eskom employs “big engineering”. Dismantling its capacity took decades of incompetence and corruption, slowly, like the proverbial “boiling of the frog”. And there’s no silver bullet to fix it quickly. Break a turbine? Wait three years for a replacement! Not exactly corner hardware store stuff we are talking about. So, get off the grid if you can. Miracles just won’t happen!

  • Peter Dexter says:

    The ANC has proven it is incapable of maintaining successful businesses, let alone turning around a broken entity. In 1994 Eskom was regarded as one of the finest power utilities in the world, and much of the infrastructure built despite sanctions. To expect the organisation who broke that in such a short period, to fix it, must surely be naïve? The only solution is rapid privatisation and limiting the role of unions and government interference. But the ideology taught to the ANC by the leaders of the late USSR prevent agile thought.

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