Eskom bailout legislation passes in the House, with sharp politicking and gerrymandering
Eskom received parliamentary approval for its R254bn bailout after the House on Thursday passed the Eskom Debt Relief Bill — but not before a bit of parliamentary sleight of hand.
The final vote was 198 for the Eskom Debt Relief Bill and 23 against, effectively scuppering an opposition attempt to sink the draft law because of the lack of a quorum in the House.
Such parliamentary moves signal the politics in the noxious mix of rolling blackouts, debt and corruption-troubled Eskom, and dipping deep into a tight national purse.
But the presiding officer, ANC MP Grace Boroto, was prepared for the DA’s call for a division, or vote. With Rule 111 at hand, she invoked the check that at least four MPs must be in support. In rapid-fire, Boroto said there weren’t four DA MPs in the House, and the online numbers didn’t count. “At this stage, there is no vote… I have ruled.”
But a point of order from DA Chief Whip Siviwe Gwarube reversed this and clinched a vote after all. The rules of hybrid physical/online sittings give all MPs on the virtual platform the same rights as those actually sitting in the chamber.
But somewhere amid EFF interjections and opposition legislators leaving their seats and the online platform, the numbers went awry for a quorum manipulation. Not even an opposition-requested recount of ANC MPs that saw numbers in the House drop from 41 to 38 changed that.
But without the IFP, National Freedom Party, Good and the Pan-Africanist Congress, the Eskom Debt Relief Bill would not have passed National Assembly muster. Now it goes to the National Council of Provinces for concurrence, a straightforward and speedy process of endorsement.
Thursday’s debate and vote underscore the bill’s contentiousness.
The Eskom Debt Relief Bill is effectively the second quarter-trillion rand bailout for the troubled state power utility, four years after the 2019 Budget provided R230-billion in a mix of a once-off allocation and annual instalments over 10 years.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Mboweni’s The Eskom Job: The devil lives in the details
The National Treasury has maintained the money will only be transferred if Eskom complies with strict conditions, including no new borrowing and not pursuing new generation projects. But in the wake of the public outcry, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana withdrew — for now — the exemption granted to Eskom from reporting irregular spending in annual reports.
Between a rock and a hard place
The Eskom Debt Relief Bill comes amid the persistent rolling blackouts which leave households and businesses without power for up to 11½ hours daily and which have diminished South Africa’s investment potential and devastated economic growth prospects.
This tension was outlined by IFP MP Mzamo Buthelezi saying the party was between a rock and a hard place on this.
“If we don’t support this bill, South Africa will reach a total blackout. It is a shame, we are being held hostage.”
In opposition were the DA, EFF, Freedom Front Plus and African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), albeit on different grounds.
EFF MP Omphile Maotwe said President Cyril Ramaphosa and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan were “instructed to allow the national grid to collapse” while a consortium of European companies was assessing the state power utility. “If those people in Europe say privatise, Eskom has no option…”
Freedom Front Plus MP Wouter Wessels squarely blamed the governing ANC following its failure to heed Eskom’s warnings in the early 2000s.
“Your former president [Jacob] Zuma allowed this. His cronies the Guptas did this. Your cadres that you appointed at the state-owned entity did this to this country. And now you say this bill is about protecting lives and livelihoods. But this bill does not do what’s needed — keep the lights on.”
ANC MPs toed the line on how the R254-billion that the Eskom Debt Relief Bill provides to the troubled power utility would allow it to settle debt and interest payments, freeing it to focus on plant efficiencies and energy availability factors. And that would help end rolling blackouts.
“Be warned, if you say no to this bill, you will say to the unemployed, the farmers, the industrialists, you do not care about their plight,” said the chairperson of the Standing Committee on Appropriations, ANC MP Sifiso Buthelezi.
And he took a stab at ex-Eskom CEO André de Ruyter over his claims of the involvement of unnamed “high-level politicians” in Eskom corruption in a televised e.tv interview followed up by a book. These claims are currently before Parliament’s spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts. The ANC has taken exception and is suing De Ruyter over his remarks.
“Let us not appoint conservative politicians who masquerade as CEO. Let us not appoint someone who instead of managing the organisation becomes an intelligence officer. Let us not appoint someone who pretends to be a CEO only to find out we are appointing Shakespeares, in other words, writing books,” said Buthelezi.
A new CEO would be appointed in the next couple of months, Gordhan announced in his budget vote speech on Tuesday. DM