South Africa


Eskom’s Age of Chaos and Uncertainty shows no sign of end in sight

Eskom’s Age of Chaos and Uncertainty shows no sign of end in sight
Minister Gwede Mantashe. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | Electricity Minister Kgosientso Ramokgopa. (Photo: GCIS)

While the government and the ANC have promised to fix South Africa’s electricity crisis, there is much evidence that President Cyril Ramaphosa is not in control of the situation.

The fact that President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to formally and legally empower the electricity minister, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, suggests he has lost the ability to deal with political disputes. Meanwhile, Eskom has to appoint a new CEO, and this appointment itself is likely to lead to more divisions. 

After all this time, our political “leaders” do not appear to be focused on working together to resolve rolling blackouts.

This week marks two months since Ramokgopa was appointed as minister of electricity in the Presidency. At the time of his appointment, Ramaphosa said it was necessary to have an official concentrating solely on dealing with load shedding.

Despite that, two months later, Ramokgopa still has no formal powers.

On Thursday, Ramaphosa again told Parliament that he would give Ramokgopa powers “soon”. Again, he did not specify a date.

Ramokgopa himself was asked about this in Parliament on Wednesday, and reacted angrily to the claim that he was a “junior minister”.

This is unprecedented. If a minister has no formal powers from the President, then what role are they playing? What are they actually doing? Is there any reason to pay a salary to a minister who has no legal power to make decisions?

It’s all about power

But the real problem may be that the other ministers do not want to give up the powers they have.

Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe is known to treasure his powers over electricity. As chair of the ANC and one of the people who saved Ramaphosa’s presidency during the Phala Phala scandal, this may have granted him immense power.

This suggests that, while Ramaphosa is officially the President, there are limits to his powers. If he cannot deal with this situation, and thus cannot deal with load shedding, then one has to ask: How can he deal with all the other massive problems we face?

In the meantime, Ramokgopa has been doing interview after interview, and making appearance after appearance. He has been talking, answering questions and explaining the government’s plans.

There is a certain political power in his energy.

For example, two weeks ago he was the first person in government to announce there would be a new bid window of 15,000MW for independent power producers. While he may not have had the formal powers to implement this, just by saying it he made it hard for the government to dial this back.

In the end, last week, the Presidency’s Rudi Dicks said the bid window would be for 9,000MW.

Either way, it looks like a massive bid window for renewable power will be opened, despite Mantashe’s public comments in favour of sticking with coal-fired power stations.

Then on Thursday, in the National Council of Provinces, Ramokgopa suggested the government was examining whether to exempt diesel being used for generators from the Road Accident Fund levy.

Again, this may be Ramokgopa adroitly using a public platform despite not having formal legal powers.

In search of a CEO

In the meantime, Eskom is still looking for a new CEO, and the outcome of this selection process has the potential to lead to more disputes.

Eskom Chair Mpho Makwana has said in public there is currently a shortlist of five people, whom he did not name, for the position. 

However, City Press reported that Vally Padayachee and Dan Marokane are on that shortlist.

Two weeks ago, former Eskom CEO Jacob Maroga was asked on SAfm if his hat was still in the ring for the position. He said that he’d “rather not discuss those matters” and asked that Eskom deal with conversations around that issue.

While that confirms nothing, it does invite speculation.

What is curious about this is that Maroga’s previous tenure at Eskom ended in a huge political fight in 2009, in which it appeared he was at odds with the ANC’s then secretary-general — Mantashe.

Maroga’s supporters at the time, which included the Black Management Forum and the ANC Youth League (then led by Julius Malema), suggested that he was being pushed out because he was black. They said that the Eskom chair at the time, Bobby Godsell, was guilty of racism.

But Mantashe, and crucially the National Union of Mineworkers, backed Godsell and opposed Maroga.

Nine full years later more light emerged on this spat, when former public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan told the Zondo Commission in 2018 that former president Jacob Zuma had personally intervened to help Maroga keep his job.

As she put it during her testimony, Zuma demanded to know from her, “What do you think you are doing?” by not forcing the Eskom board to retain Maroga.

This incident suggests that the dynamics of Maroga being reappointed to the position (if he is indeed on the shortlist) and his relationship with Mantashe, who is now energy minister, may be more than interesting.

Of course, this was long ago, and they may well have found common ground now.

It also suggests that the position of Eskom CEO was seen as crucially important by the President in 2009. It is likely that this is still the case.

This means that all of the ministers involved in this could have strong views on who the new CEO should be. So, even if technically it is really only up to the Eskom board and the public enterprises minister, Pravin Gordhan, both Mantashe and Ramokgopa may want a say.

And while Mantashe has no official power over Eskom in this appointment, it appears that it was his attack on André de Ruyter, coupled with his claim that intense load shedding was “akin to agitating for the overthrow of the state”, that led to the CEO’s resignation. It would surely be foolish to repeat a situation where the energy minister opposes the CEO of Eskom.

It appears that De Ruyter’s ethnicity — the fact that he is white — became a major factor in the situation at Eskom. The position of Eskom CEO has become totemic and the racial identity of the person in that position has become important.

This may count against Padayachee, through no fault of his own.

It is of course possible that Ramaphosa soon gives Ramokgopa powers over the electricity sector, and there is no dispute between him and the other ministers. And that the Eskom board selects a CEO who is supported by all the roleplayers.

However, considering how intense the politics of this has been in the recent past, it would be unwise to hold one’s breath that this will be so. DM


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