Business Maverick

ROLLING BLACKOUTS

Return of the veterans — inside Eskom’s push to reverse skills and knowledge loss

Return of the veterans — inside Eskom’s push to reverse skills and knowledge loss
From left: Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. (Photo: Esa Alexander / Sunday Times | The Kusile coal-fired power station (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter (Photo: Freddy Mavunda / Business Day)

In response to nearly two weeks of rolling blackouts, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan announced that 18 former Eskom employees with experience had been recruited. Heavy hitters who worked their entire lives at Eskom have been brought in.

Eskom management has previously suggested bringing back former employees to address the power utility’s lack of skills capacity to run and maintain its energy plants.

But the suggestion, endorsed by Eskom CEO André de Ruyter after he was appointed in 2019, led to pushback from the power utility’s employees and their trade unions. They viewed it as a dressing-down of the current skills base at Eskom; that workers were not skilled or experienced enough to limit unscheduled plant breakdowns, which cause rolling blackouts. The suggestion also didn’t receive support from the government or, in this case, the Department of Public Enterprises, which is Eskom’s shareholder representative.

But the intensified rolling blackouts in recent days have forced the department to have a change of heart. The department has green-lighted a plan that involves 18 former Eskom employees, with technical skills spanning engineering and artisanship, to be recruited back into the power utility.

The former employees have been approached by Eskom to return in a mentoring and training role lending support to Eskom’s lower level and senior staff at power stations. The former employees were instrumental in maintaining Eskom’s power stations decades ago and can help stem the downward trend in the performance of generating units.

Veterans return

In response to nearly two weeks of rolling blackouts, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan announced that 18 former Eskom employees with experience had been recruited. In the past week alone, “18 seasoned energy specialists in power plant operations — some with over 20 years of experience — have re-entered the Eskom system to assist with operations”, Gordhan said in a press release.

Gordhan didn’t name the 18 Eskom veterans but mentioned in a Newzroom Afrika interview on Tuesday that the former employees include Edward Kieswetter, who is the South African Revenue Service commissioner. Acting in his personal capacity, Kieswetter is set to lead the team of recruited former Eskom employees with a collective experience of 100 years. 

The cold, hard facts — there’s no quick fix, and the power crisis is likely to get worse

Kieswetter worked as a senior manager in charge of the utility’s power stations and generation capacity from January 1992 to March 2000. He and his executive team at the time were lauded for turning around Eskom’s operations by improving worker safety at power stations and rebuilding a 600MW generation unit from scratch — a huge engineering feat. And for such efforts, Eskom’s power stations were voted the best in the world for their engineering excellence and efficiency.

In the late 1990s (specifically 1998), Eskom’s power station efficiency improved as its energy availability factor (EAF), which is the proportion of its plant available to dispatch energy, reached 92.7%. A high EAF indicates that plants are well operated and maintained, helping the utility to produce electricity cheaper. Eskom’s EAF has been on a downward trend for a decade, reaching 84.5% in 2011, falling further to 66.6% by 2020, and now languishing at 56.6%.

Loss of skills

The decline in the EAF coincides with the exodus of skills at Eskom over the past two decades. The loss of skills at Eskom was initially sparked when old and experienced employees were encouraged to take voluntary severance packages and make way for the hiring of new black graduate engineers and artisans. This happened a few years after the government introduced policies and laws such as affirmative action and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment that are well-intentioned and crucial for promoting diversity in workplaces. State-owned enterprises such as Eskom and others have a higher requirement and duty to racially transform their staff profile.

While Eskom managed to attract capable black graduate engineers and artisans with excellent qualifications, they lacked the technical experience of the power utility’s workers who accepted voluntary severance packages. But Eskom’s racial transformation focus was successful, with black individuals appointed to senior positions. As more older and experienced workers were on their way out, Eskom also neglected its programmes to mentor and train newly employed workers.


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Then another phenomenon of highly experienced Eskom workers getting lucrative employment opportunities overseas prompted many to leave the power utility, especially during its accelerated decline over the past 15 years, marked by rolling blackouts, lack of new energy generation, woeful maintenance of existing plants and State Capture-related corruption. 

A retired engineer who worked for Eskom told Business Maverick: “Eskom was a respected and admired power utility around the world. If you had Eskom on your CV as part of work experience, you’d easily be headhunted overseas.” 

Reversing knowledge loss

There is now a deliberate focus on reversing the loss of institutional knowledge, mentorship and learning.

Gordhan said the 18 former Eskom employees had visited the power utility’s plant to evaluate its poor performance in the face of unplanned breakdowns.

“Their wisdom will be incorporated in improving their performance,” he said. Gordhan added that there was no longer pushback from power station managers and other staff as they were now willing to accept mentoring and training from the former employees.

The search for more former employees, who are highly experienced and retired, is ongoing and a list of candidates will soon be compiled, Eskom told Business Maverick. So, Eskom is going beyond the 18 veterans.

The former employees will be recruited and offered fixed-term contracts, which usually run for 12 months, with a renewal option. 

“The required skills include but are not limited to, mechanical, nuclear, electrical, system and maintenance skills, as well as senior artisans and plant operators for coal and nuclear power stations. Initially, the need is more for the generating plants of Eskom,” said Eskom. 

The search for skills externally started before the appointment of De Ruyter in 2019 as Eskom’s CEO. Years before De Ruyter’s appointment, Eskom’s board approved more than 300 vacancies for its operations, including individuals who had superior qualifications, but lacked rigorous technical experience in the field of power.

But under De Ruyter, there is a plan to recruit ex-Eskom employees, many of whom had worked their entire lives at Eskom, either permanently on fixed contracts or as third-party service providers. DM/BM

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  • Andrew McWalter says:

    And so the bleedingly obvious ignorance of a racially-based power-grab is exposed. The myopic squint of so-called “leaders” who can’t or don’t admit to their own limitations, yet are willing to sacrifice the future of an entire country for the sake of an ill-considered thought-bubble, dream if you will, pours shame upon the very nation they so naively sought to “fast-track” into the modern world, wilfully ignoring the centuries of blood, sweat and tears, including wars internecine and colonial, that every other nation had to endure to get there. How stupidly arrogant ANC, to think “entitlement” could save you the journey!

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      Very true, and to make matters worse, the unions have willingly and ably assisted in the process of digging deeper into the wounds of Eskom. All for the sake of their own power and financial gain. The whole fiasco is an absolute tradgedy under the watchfull eye of the ANC. It makes sensible and like minded people very angry with what the ANC has destroyed in all spheres of poor governance.

  • R S says:

    Of course the ANC would let things get this bad before thinking maybe they had to try something else.

  • jeyezed says:

    Long-term, the removal of over-complement staff and deadwood must be part of the turnaround.

  • allan j whitehead says:

    Oh Buddy, can’t wait to see when the words, racist, colonialists, afrikaners , white people, BBEEE et al will be mentioned here.

    • Stephanie Brown says:

      So these are other people who are going to make these comments, but they are not yours?

    • Rg Bolleurs says:

      A friend of mine who has just retired from a senior position at eskom opines that the head of one of eskoms major divisions is a junior who is completely incompetent.

      If this is true, it’s shocking that de ruiter either cannot see this, or can see it but is unable to address the problem.

      The return of the old boys is surely an acknowledgement that the current lot are fundamentally unskilled.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    We will never make it while we are fixated with race. Eskom set out to get rid of white employees, to facilitate the guptas and other state capture projects, to pad the payroll with too many employees at eye watering salaries.

    These objectives have clearly been achieved. As for producing electricity, that’s just some kind of sideline.

    And the same ideology and practices can be seen in the railways, ports, post office, education system, and in everything the ANC touches

    • Stephanie Brown says:

      Eskom’s decision is about bringing back people with long experience, but you focus on race. You can be forgiven though because this country has been fixated on race for more than 100 years. It is our history and why we are where we are today. Of course we need skilled people in the right roles for the right reasons, but we also cannot ignore the past and the inequality it has created. That must be addressed, but not at the expense of the effective operation of state institutions. I am sure we agree there, but a bit more thought before you play the race card.

      • Malcolm McManus says:

        On topic,We are where we are today, mainly because of the last 28 years of rule. Historically everything before that built Eskom. Eskom was perfectly functional when the ANC inherited it. There is little doubt that BEE has played a very significant role in its downfall both functionally and financially. This is factually accurate. The only race card here belongs to the ANC.

      • Gerrie Pretorius says:

        The ‘race card’ is not played for ‘the return of expertise and experience’, it is mentioned as the racial AA and BEE policies of the anc causing the dire situation SA is facing in all spheres of government.

      • Gazeley Walker says:

        Not sure where it was said the 18 recruits were all white, everyone seems to have just jumped to this assumption.
        As to your “play the race card “, have you heard how often the “white colonialism” phrase is used by our failing politicians as an excuse for their own shortcomings – the race card will always be implied, whether explicity stated or subtly inferred, but not every comment has a racial bias, especially when it is a statement of known fact.

      • Colin Louw says:

        Hang on a minute there! You imply that there is an adequate source of black qualified experienced individuals to fill Eksdom’s needs! Quite bluntly there is not a number even near to the word adequate available. We can debate as to why this is and moan and bitch about how the pre 94 rulers are the reason, BUT it does not excuse hiring incompetent wet behind the ears blacks with degrees to do the job needing 12 years on the ground experience, nor does it justify squeezing out the (white) experienced folk – and I know for a fact that this happened – in order to appoint sometimes 3 people to replace the one squeezed out – and all 3 have buggerall experience anyway. Eksdom is overstaffed 200% compared to any other power utility in the real world and that has led to bankruptcy and pathetic operational performance.
        It is only a race question because of how the competent staff were replaced on a strictly race based format under the guise of BBBEEE.
        There is no way you can even begin equating fixing the past by stuffing up the future of a country which is what Eksdom has done.

  • Manish Hira says:

    TIL Kieswetter is a proper boss. So much knowledge and now also running SARS (very well I might say), why the heck did they not recruit him instead of De Ruyter since he has actual experience in building power stations. Could have been different today.

    And Gordhan is full of crap. Saying they inherited this problem. Typical useless politician – sad because he was really good at one point too

    • William Kelly says:

      One who preaches ‘tax morality’ and yet evades any accountabiltiy for what happens to it? No my friend, he is evil personified. He buries his head to what is going on, deluded in thinking he is contributing to the greater good by seizing money from hapless citizens to be fed to the corruption machine. Beware ‘do gooders’ for they serve other masters that will not let up the boot against your throat.

      • Peter Holmes says:

        I am not a Kieswetter fan (and see him just as another Party apparatchick, doing what the Party has instructed him to do, and doing it rather well), but I think “evil personified” is a bit harsh.

  • betsy Kee says:

    It’s high time that merit – experience and competency – is the only criteria for employment!

    • Lorraine Forbes says:

      Absolutely, there are so many good people of all races wanting this country to work. To get out of the mess we are in we need to start appointing the best person for the job irrespective of colour.

  • Laurence Erasmus says:

    But Ray, “Eskom’s racial transformation was successful “ is a lie. The loss of skills and institutional memory as a direct consequence of this racial transformation is what has been a key factor in crippling Eskom to the point of Stage 6 rolling blackouts which are set to continue for at least another 24 months!

  • Gerrie Pretorius says:

    At last! Somebody acknowledges publicly that AA and BEE policy from the anc rulers are the main reasons for the mess Eskom and SA finds itself.

  • Hiram C Potts says:

    QUOTE: “But Eskom’s racial transformation focus was successful, with black individuals appointed to senior positions.”

    The logic defies me. So the racial transformation was successful? However SA teeters on the abyss of a total grid collapse as qualified people were ditched in the name of ” well-intentioned” BEE & transformation. We’re all living through the outcome of the “well-intentioned” BEE appointments of Koko, Molefe et al.

    Greed, arrogance & stupidity, a most lethal combination.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    “But Eskom’s racial transformation focus was successful, with black individuals appointed to senior positions.”
    Since ESKOM is all but collapsed, it is quite obvious that the transformation was not successful and the race based politics of the ANC are to blame for our energy problems.

  • David Mark says:

    This was the other problem with race based policies – assuming because they are “African” they wouldn’t leave for better opportunities overseas, as is every individuals prerogative, regardless of race.

  • dylan smith says:

    Sorry for us all. BEE failed long ago not because people of colour needed chances but because a massive knowledge base was isolated, ridiculed and removed because of thier skin colour. It was just the way it was wrong or right. Stupid and wastfull policies yes. Let’s hope the current management will be more receptive to knowledge than the ANC.

    • Gordon Holtmann says:

      I don’t understand why you don’t just get one person to write one of these emails, then I need only read one. Its all the same. Hate the ANC, hate black empowerment, hate transformation. I told you so! – blah blah blah. The subtext is racist. Yes Eskom has been and still is a disaster. The previous 50 years were also a disaster if you were black. No education. No jobs – except menial. No country of your own. Is it a surprise that black people don’t want white people in charge? I suggest a change in attitude. Try having a positive thought about the country for once and making a positive contribution – all of you – without exception live very good lives in South Africa. Lets move on!

      • Gazeley Walker says:

        Absolutely agree, so let’s get the qualified and trained staff back on Eskom’s books, and if they all happen to be white so be it! Nothing racial about that, just the right qualified staff being employed to do the job.

      • Wikus van der walt says:

        Thank you Gordon!
        You are so right of course but, we do know that the BBBEE policies with its wins also brought reverse racism and loss of institutional knowledge because of fast-tracking a process that should have been given a patient, planned phasing-in strategy. The longer-term result is ironies like two white Afrikaans-speaking leaders heading our power utility out of a mess caused by short-sighted greedy servants of the Guptas and themselves.

      • John Smythe says:

        Oh, please. Yawn!

      • allan j whitehead says:

        Ok Gordon, lets not move on, what did you do for your country today ?
        Tell ”all of us” what positive contribution did you make in the past, we could all maybe learn from you.
        You cannot judge “all of us” that has a sub text of being racist.
        DILLIGAF my friend.

  • Karin Ireton says:

    Eskom previously spent a vast amount detailing in minute detail the technical aspects of every single job in the operations in order to ensure that during skills handover know how would not be lost. One has to wonder what happened to all that and why new recruits have not be guided through those technical job descriptions.

  • A.K.A. Fred says:

    That Eskom is finally re-hiring ex employees with operational skills is absolute proof of government’s desperation after failure of their cadre deployment and affirmative action policies. Their acceptance of re-hiring lost skills, however, comes too late to make any short term difference to the energy situation, and does not go far enough to make a noticeable impact. This decision should have been implemented 6 – 10 years ago when the writing was clearly on the wall and Cyril was in the “energy war room”. A handful of people in mentoring and training positions is not going to make any fast changes to the situation. Replacement of underskilled or incompetent management and technical staff (all of whom are undisputably highly paid, by the way) is needed for urgent
    stabilisation of the generation disaster we are going through.
    The dream of upskilling everyone as a happy family is not going to cut it in time to save Eskom. Hard decisions need to be made now to rightsize the organisation and ensure a capable workforce.

  • Tess Fairweather says:

    At last a tipping point!
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all South Africans could just take this as a lesson in life and learn from history.
    Let’s not forget that economic success stories like Sasol, Eskom, Armscor and others, were the work of the staunch previously disadvantaged early (mainly Dutch) settlers who imbued the country with attitudes like “Kaal voet oor die berge” and “To hell with you European colonialists – we’ll do it ourselves. And we will do it better than you! Just watch us”
    The really foolish political mis-step by the current regime was that they demanded immediate hand over of jobs rather than set in place a programme of mentorship and in house training to retain the invaluable experience and innovative attitudes.
    I am old enough to remember my fellow students who received Eskom bursaries and were happy and very proud to be life-long employees of the institution that afforded them the education their families could not have afforded.
    How’s that for a smart economic deal? Better than BEE and Fees Must Fall.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Political ideology is most dangerous!

  • Robert Pegg says:

    Why does it reach crisis point before anything is done ? It’s not only Eskom who need to recruit former employees, but every public service. Just look at corruption amongst top Police officials who were elevated to senior positions far beyond their capabilities and experience. The same has happened in Fire Brigade Services, to the detriment of the level of service now provided, compared to 20 years ago. Belonging to a political party should not be an advantage when making appointments, but it seems it is.

  • Nos Feratu says:

    Please get your facts straight. First you say some of the 18 have 20 years + experience. Then collectively they have 100 years?
    If the ANC had not introduced stuff like BEE etc the demographics of our country would have ensured an intake of black people who would have been properly trained to move up the corporate ladder. By now (almost 30 years) there would have been competent management in SOE’s across the country instead of the disaster we are faced with.

  • Claude Koenig says:

    NOBODY MENTIONS THE ROLE THAT THE GUPTAS AND THAT THIEF OF AN EX PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA PLAYED IN THE DEMISE OF ESCOM ONCE A PREMIER WORLD RENOWNED POWER UTILITY – THE EXTENT OF THE THEFT BY THE GUPTA ZUMA PARTNERSHIP WAS BREATHTAKING AND BOTH PARTIES HAVE NEVER BEEN CALLED TO ACCOUNT FOR THEIR THEFT – SO SICK (EXCUSE THE ZUMA PUN)

  • Jimbo Smith says:

    And Squirrel thinks a long, long, long Cabinet meeting will deliver the #Holy Grail solution. We have to be the laughing stock nation of the entire World with this never ending bumbling, stumbling Govt screwing up every single thing they put their hands on.

  • André Pelser says:

    Power utilities, facilities and grids are incredibly complex, requiring top engineers and administrators. There should have been a gradual transition with new recruits chosen on merit and mentored. Black empowerment and cadre deployment – state capture – prevented this judicious approach, which reveals poor judgement and racial bias, also in every other SOE and entity.
    It seems that a rethink requires a crisis, but heaven preserve us from states of emergency and a command council!

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Eskom requires a lot more than the recruiting of a couple of engineers. The rot is in every facet of the business and if one is wobbly, everything is wobbly. I believe that the top operational management know where the problems are, but whether they have the will and backing to do the dirty work remains to be seen-or we will be here in 2 years time blaming 18 engineers for the woes of a company employing 50,000. Eskom requires a state of emergency management regime, it requires the injection of top skills and experience into virtually every team (which means ejection of all the baggage) and iron will at implementation. If that requires each plant to be guarded like a nuclear facility, so be it. This is no less important than a war. Because if it does not return to supplying reliable power we are going to see much greater pushback than can be mustered by the RET brigade-starting with a tax revolt.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    18 skilled former employees return and get an entire article! How many were fired due to their race? The ANC policies are racist.

  • steve woodhall says:

    Erm… notwithstanding all the stuff that’s already been said, one thing hasn’t. What will Cyril do when the first of those 18 is killed by the mafia for refusing to accept a truckload of discard with a delivery note that says ‘grade A coal’? Or when one of them pulls out a 9-mil and plugs a mafioso? I can just hear Malema’s ranting now…

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The notion that affirmative action drove skills away from ESKOM is just lies and disinformation. What has driven skills from Eskom and the state is corruption. Skilled and professional people left to protect their reputations and integrity. No professional worth his salt or her salt would remain in a very corrupt environment As soon as corruption descended on the public institutions and people were appointed to further massive looting people left. You can think of Brian Dames and others at Eskom. Also, as soon as Ministers encroached in the running of the parastatals professionals left. This situation was compounded by impunity of prosecution and lack of protection of whistle blowers. Which remain a key problem even today. What has helped this country is a confluence of several factors. The first is the emergence of EFF and I deliberately say so because it changed the political dynamics of opposition politics and at the same time the emergence of Maimane in the DA. The second dynamic was the fourth estate that changed from being lapdogs of the ruling party and gained a spine to report widely on corruption. Zuma ascended with the support of the media and
    business and we were here and are witnesses and the late Karima Brown was his praise singer until she saw reality!

    • Colin Louw says:

      Not sure where you get your highly questionable information from to support your opening statement.I know a few who where in high positions within the Eskom system. A couple where offered goodish packages and subtly suggested they take it rather than get transferred to some g-forsaken alternative place. A lot of competent managers had totally incompetent folk basically appointed to their exact same position and they were told to “mentor and train” these deployees with the obvious intention that they would in due course actually report to these incompetent folk, and some were given trumped up charges to defend while being offered relatively favourable out packages. This was in the engineering field only and was long before the spectre of corruption became so public. So simply put I believe you are so wrong. There was a massive and concerted effort to get rid of the white engineering complement who were often in managerial positions and replace them with totally under qualified BEE approved alternatives. The result is an Eskom successfully racially transformed but totally useless.

    • Frans Flippo says:

      We can’t underestimate the effect of putting previously traumatised (by Apartheid) people in leadership positions where the power that was previously used to oppress them is now power that they hold. They are by and large following the example of the Apartheid-era leaders before them:
      use power to oppress, don’t tolerate dissent. Their insecurity results in a culture where there is no accountability because anyone who dares speak out against the leader will be the target of an attack by that same leader: they will abuse their power to maintain an image of authority even though it is merely a thin layer on top of their insecurity.

      I’ve personally experienced this when airing criticism to the minister of Home Affairs about the unreasonably long processing times for permanent residency permits of spouses (my wife has been waiting for over 3 years). Instead of acknowledging the problems, he doubled down and started attacking me, saying I was welcome to leave the country.

      I can’t imagine having to work under this type of leader; it inevitably infects the entire organisation, chasing away the competent people who can find opportunities elsewhere, and this is undoubtedly what happened at Eskom as well. As long as feedback from the work floor to leadership is discouraged and considered a personal attack to the leader, these organisations will never improve. We need to get rid of these toxic leaders.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Smoke and mirrors will be kept up, we have communists running the country, defending Putin, as he is their hero.

  • jeyezed says:

    And how many of deadwood have been got rid of?

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    It seems that both Eskom and the government can learn from how Sasol dealt with the employment equity process. They started to recruit African engineers in the late 1980’s – and when Project Phoenix was executed in around 2011, many of them thus had more than 20 years experience at Sasol. So at the time just before I retired (2014-2015) Sasol had a wealth of capable AND experienced engineers to put in leadership positions. But besides, engineering expertise is not really all that is needed. Mashelo Koko was an engineer and he had such an obsession with the technicalities that he completely forgot to properly manage, in fact if I am not mistaken, the Zondo commission recommended that he be investigated for corruption. Eventually it is MANAGEMENT EXPERTISE that is the most important, and that includes expertise in all aspects of management, but especially the mentioned institutional memory of how to manage that specific enterprise. I heard somewhere research showed that with big complicated enterprises like that, managers only become efficient after about a decade when they got to know the specifics of the organisation they are involved with. And the trouble is that with the state-owned enterprises, the ideological pressures involved with the management jobs always make offers from the private sector, where such political factors don’t exist, very attractive.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    . . . So that is why I conclude that only the minimum enterprises should be included under state control – the electric grid, the railway lines and probably the railway stations because they control the traffic on the railway lines, and anything that has to do with law enforcement. These enterprises can then source what they need from the private sector. At the same time SA can absolutely not afford a nationalist government like the ANC which want to use everything and anything they can lay their hands on for ideological purposes (and neither can any other country). The fact that that is what we have, is why SA is in such a state. I mean, as long as a Mandela or a Ramaphosa is in power they will try to enforce good management practices, but there will always also be a Trump, Zuma, Magashule, Mantashe or Fraser that wants to get control so they can abuse these enterprises for their own purposes; even with good rulers in charge you will still always have bad politicians in the system who will do anything to abuse. On the other side, good governance means that those enterprises works for EVERYBODY, not just the supporters of the ruling party. So to protect those who don’t support the ruling party, the government must not have unnecessary control over business.

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