Load shedding – an election weapon best used steaming hot
The arrival of Stage 6 load shedding over the weekend underscores how potent an issue the energy crisis will be in this year’s elections. And the timing of the latest round of problems at Eskom, between the State of the Nation Address and the launch of the EFF’s election manifesto, could not have been worse for the ANC. Also, the response to it from the party’s secretary-general shows, once again, how the party tends to react with emotion, not rationality.
Last Thursday evening, during a period of Stage 2 load shedding, President Cyril Ramaphosa proclaimed that the end of load shedding was in sight.
Just hours later, Eskom intensified load shedding to Stage 4. After midnight, on Saturday, it climbed to Stage 6, followed by Stage 5 on Sunday.
On Sunday, Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa explained that a major contributor was boiler tube leaks. And the weather conditions that saw virtually no wind and relatively little sun added to the problem.
Politically, however, the story had already moved on.
On Saturday, EFF leader Julius Malema released his party’s manifesto, giving an indication of how important load shedding will be to his campaign. The slogan of the EFF’s manifesto is simple, “Land and Jobs Now. End Load Shedding Now”.
On Monday morning, spokesperson Sinawo Tambo reiterated the party’s promise that if elected into national government, it will stop load shedding within six months.
As part of this plan, the EFF intends to recruit a group of engineers who, they say, are willing to help.
Tambo also told SAfm on Monday morning: “We must bring back industry experts who have been able to stop load shedding before. And that is going to require all of us to sort of swallow our pride and accept that there were individuals who’ve been at Eskom, who’ve been able to put a stop to load shedding in South Africa before, and these people must be deployed there…”
When asked if he was referring to former acting Eskom CEO Matshela Koko and former CEO Brian Molefe, he said: “I didn’t mention any names, but we are going to have to be honest with ourselves that there are individuals who are industry experts who have been removed.”
Both Koko and Molefe have faced criminal charges over their roles at Eskom during the State Capture era.
Meanwhile, this coming weekend, the DA is also likely to use its manifesto launch to turn up the heat on the ANC. It has previously been a part of a series of court applications that resulted in a ruling that the ANC-led government was responsible for load shedding.
The ANC’s response to the crisis was revealing (though not surprising).
On Saturday, ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula tweeted on X: “Stage 6 load shedding clear sabotage. Strong extra security measures are needed.”
On Sunday, he repeated this claim, telling ANC supporters in KwaZulu-Natal: “The state must not rule out the possibility of sabotage which is aligned to major events in the country. There are many questions that ordinary people like ourselves ask about load shedding and how it is happening, and those questions point to the direction that it is very clear there is sabotage.
“But we are saying, as the ANC, the state must up its gear in terms of investigating and looking at particular possibilities.”
So far, Mbalula has given no evidence to back up his claims of sabotage.
But it is also not clear what the ANC, or government, could do to protect Eskom installations from this alleged “sabotage”.
At present, SANDF soldiers have been deployed to protect Eskom power stations. This suggests it would be difficult for anyone outside these power stations to cause any damage.
It is much more likely that any “sabotage” would come from insiders – people who work within the power stations.
This would support claims made by former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter, and others, that there was widespread corruption at Eskom power stations. And that this “sabotage” is aimed at increasing the amount of work for contractors and the amount of consumables that Eskom would have to use, thus generating invoices for suppliers.
This might be awkward for some in the ANC who have previously attacked De Ruyter for making these claims.
Also, Mbalula’s claim appears to directly contradict the explanations given for this spate of load shedding by Eskom as well as Ramokgopa.
They have said the real cause of this was a series of boiler tube leaks. These tubes transport steam often at temperatures of around 1,000°C.
As EE Publishers has explained (through a News 24 report), fixing these is incredibly difficult. It involves large tubes having to be cooled down through the use of massive fans, and then a person has to climb into the tube and find the leak. After repairing it, the site has to be X-rayed to ensure it is properly sealed.
All of this takes time, and often the biggest variable is how long it will take to cool down the tubes before a person can get into them.
It does appear to be technically possible that one of the causes of these leaks is the use of mixed-quality coal, which can lead to particular forms of ash blowing through these tubes. At these speeds and temperatures, the ash can act almost like sandpaper on the sides of the tubes, leading to these leaks.
However, the chair of the National Rationalised Specifications Association of SA, Vally Padayachee, has told Newzroom Afrika he does not believe that coal is the cause of these leaks, but rather a set of other maintenance problems. He also believes there will be more incidents such as these, where a cluster of tube leaks occurs, leading to intense load shedding.
Despite these technical explanations, Mbalula is likely to repeat his claims of sabotage.
This has been a consistent claim by the ANC – that severe load shedding is a deliberate attempt to weaken the party.
It was Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe who claimed in December 2022, without evidence, that intense load shedding was “akin to agitating for the overthrow of the state”.
That comment led directly to De Ruyter resigning from Eskom.
More than a year later, the incoming CEO, Dan Marokane, has yet to start his term. He will take office only next month.
All of this underscores how dangerous this situation has become. When technical problems lead to load shedding, the response of the ANC is to claim that it is the victim of sabotage. And those claims can then have dire consequences.
Considering how important load shedding is to voters, it is likely that ANC leaders will keep repeating this claim. This means that while Mbalula may be able to let off his own superheated steam fairly regularly, he will never be able to generate more electricity. DM