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From the Inside: And on the seventh day Eskom rests

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

An electricity shutdown during working hours may seem small in the scale of things, but it is symptomatic of the malaise that has made the decline of several state owned enterprises irreversible.

The news over the past six months has inured most of us to major scandals.  Every week brings new revelations that would bring down the government in most democracies. Here such news barely elicits a ripple of controversy anymore.

In contrast, small scandals (relatively speaking) still manage to shock me.   Such as the contents of a letter that crossed my desk this week from Mr Joggie Scholtz, Municipal Manager of Swartland.

With its seat of local government in Malmesbury, Swartland encompasses ten other towns and villages, and has become one of the Western Cape’s steadily growing economic nodes, largely as a result of twenty years of stable and effective municipal governance.

The municipal manager’s letter expressed his objection to Eskom’s decision to undertake planned maintenance during working hours, that would necessitate electricity outages lasting up to 12 hours. 

Before 2016, explained Scholtz, this work was undertaken on a Sunday, but since then Eskom had insisted on undertaking this work during the week.

“Since approximately 60% of the electrical load of Malmesbury comprises industrial and commercial customers, we again intend to object to the Eskom application for an electricity outage during normal working hours,” Scholtz informed the provincial government.

He appended a letter written by the town engineer, Mr Roelof du Toit, explaining that “a total shut-down of the Eskom Malmesbury substation during working hours is unacceptable and cannot be granted.”  He described the disregard for the town’s economy as “extremely distressing and intolerable”.

The letter landed on the same day the media reported Statistics South Africa’s finding (from a survey conducted in 2015) that 30,4-million of South Africa’s 55-million citizens lived in poverty, with one in seven in extreme food poverty.

In other words, in 2015, three million more people were living in poverty than in 2011. And the situation is probably significantly worse today, given the seismic shocks that corruption and mismanagement (particularly in Eskom) have administered to the economy over the past two years.

The proposed electricity shutdown during working hours may seem small in the scale of things, but it is symptomatic of the malaise that has made the decline of several state-owned enterprises irreversible (even as they continue inflicting irreparable damage to the economy and our prospects for job-creation). 

Just recently the press reported that Eskom was proposing to pay its employees a R150-million “winter challenge” bonus for avoiding power cuts    one month after reportedly paying R4,2-billion in performances bonuses.  And then came the news that the Eskom board was still trying to find ways of paying its former CEO, Brian Molefe, a “full and final” settlement of R11-million, after he spent just one year in the job at the behest of the notorious Gupta brothers.

Joining all these dots of information, I became so infuriated that I telephoned one of Eskom’s Senior Managers in the Western Cape, an efficient, responsive person with whom the provincial government has open lines of communication.

After summarising the gist of Scholtz’s letter, he responded:

“Yes, that is the situation. There is no budget for over-time work.” 

He then explained that if staff did maintenance work over weekends, or public holidays, they earned double-pay or got double-time off.

“Our budget does not stretch that far,” he explained.

There was no point in venting my anger at him, so I didn’t. I am sure things would be different if he were in charge of these decisions, but he isn’t.

It showed me once again what the failure of top leadership and management means to any institution, particularly a state utility that operates as an effective monopoly. Eskom’s key mandate is to produce enough electricity to power economic growth. Instead, it has become one of the biggest brakes on growth. Indeed, in 2015, just at the time that StatsSA was undertaking its poverty survey, Eskom’s widespread (and unplanned) electricity blackouts were doing more than anything else to deter investment and economic growth in South Africa.

And today, while Eskom electricity prices soar to pay for its new coal-fired plants, it is trying to limit the growth of the green energy sector (where electricity prices are falling) in order to protect its near-monopoly.

If Eskom faced real competition, it would have to be much more efficient, and take rational decisions. It would not, for example, be able to plan electricity outages on working days, because it would lose customers to other energy producers. So defending its monopoly has become its top priority, at whatever cost to the economy.

Yet, without a hint of irony, the government continues banging on about how South Africa’s number one priority is economic growth and job creation. This disjuncture between what is said and done, occurs in almost every policy sphere.

Take public transport.

This week the shocking news broke that there has been a 400% increase in train cancellations in the Western Cape over the past two years.

The management of the country’s rail system falls under national government, through another effective monopoly. And its mismanagement is crippling a once vibrant rail-based commuter system in Cape Town.

Bizarrely, some commuters respond to the unreliable train service by burning carriages.  In two years 101 train coaches in the province have been lost to fire, at an estimated cost of R312-million. In addition, this criminal vandalism increases the unreliability of the service, sparking greater anger and more burning. Then there are the repeated incidents of cable theft which further undermine reliability.

Seemingly simple, routine repairs take months  – like the replacement of a signal box on the Southern line, which has dragged on for 32 weeks, causing extreme disruption to the service, with commuters having to rely on a slow and unpredictable shuttle between certain stations.

As a result, many are turning to road-based transport, adding to the massive congestion problem that has developed in Cape Town, and which constitutes a further brake on growth.

When one reads about Transnet’s purchase of rolling stock that is too tall for our rail system, and the Guptas creaming R5-billion (or 20%) off the purchase price of new locomotives, it fuels my determination to pass provincial legislation that will hold the national government accountable for such gross dereliction of duty. We are determined to ensure that such legislation is passed within this term of office.

As a corrupt elite take decisions that progressively cripple our economy and exacerbate poverty, there is another deeply disturbing trend: the increasingly routine rhetoric blaming “whiteness” and “white privilege” for the dire state of the economy, and deepening poverty.

Bell Pottinger became internationally notorious for tapping into this rich seam of local racial invective, and turning it into a deliberate marketing strategy for the Zuma faction of the ANC.  While Bell Pottinger deserves to be targeted for the unethical practice of fuelling racial invective in South Africa, we need to ensure that we do not limit our censure only to this white-owned, foreign PR firm.

It is time for South Africans who want our democracy to work, and our economy to grow, to confront this vicious race-shaming narrative wherever it arises, and whoever spews it.

If we do not, the scapegoating of minorities, to deflect attention from the massive policy failures and corruption of the ruling elite, will propel South Africa into a hole from which we will not emerge for decades. DM


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