Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 11 December 2019

Eskom: The Grinch that stole our Christmas

Perhaps a strategy of placing all state-owned enterprises, including Eskom, under business rescue is not such a bad idea. God knows we must do something to get us out of this mess.

It has now been 12 years since we had our first taste of load shedding in 2007 and in 12 years, we have been incapable of fixing this problem.

The president writes lyrically about having visited the Medupi power station, the fourth largest of its kind in the world, he says. Do you think we care about that, Mr President, while we sit in the dark? This is nothing more than a reception party for the new Eskom CEO arriving in January 2020. He must arrive at Eskom’s head office with a torch to find his office.

This is effectively, sabotage. Whether you call it Stage 4, or now Stage 6, we don’t care, Mr President. We want you to tell us how you are fixing this problem.

There are arguments for solutions that traverse both ideological approaches. Some believe in the power of the rich and therefore, the ownership of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) by the private sector. Others believe in the power of the poor masses and therefore, the ownership of SOEs by the whole society – public ownership. Either way, we must find a speedy resolution to this impasse.

A post below on one of my WhatsApp groups is not a perfect analysis but, like many opinions, it has some grains of truth and I repeat it here because it is valuable food for thought. Dr Anthony Turton’s current assessment of SA is sadly too true, when he says:

What shocks me is the rate of deindustrialisation in SA, remember that just 25 years ago: We had specialist entities like Iscor that made sophisticated steel used, for example, in gun barrels. We were leaders in oil from coal; We were the only producer of steel in Africa. We made copper cables at African Cables. There was more energy concentration in a 100km2 area in Vereeniging than in any other African country’s entire energy usage per hour. Samancor produced specialist alloy feedstock and Stewart’s and Lloyd’s manufactured a range of sophisticated products of great precision like pumps. Dorbyl fabricated heavy engineering components.

On the military side, we were nuclear-capable and on the threshold of weaponising nuclear warheads exactly like North Korea is doing today. All of this was possible – and I am not saying it was good or bad to be nuclear-capable – only that we had the sophisticated technical capacity. In two decades that world-class capacity has been lost and raw sewage now floods the basements of buildings. The collapse has been total and rapid. The epicentre of the most concentrated form of primary production on the African continent has been wiped out with one sweep. The country that pioneered heart transplants now breeds new pathogens that are likely to create a health catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.”

Then he asks: “Does this speak to the inability of a liberation movement to govern? Is this a shocking truth that few want to admit. The army that just 25 years ago produced the most sophisticated artillery, and which was at a stage considered the most advanced military force in the world after Israel and which saw the creation of an attack helicopter (Rooivalk) equal to the Apache, is now retreating from Emfuleni unable to execute the mission given to it last year on the Cape Flats.”

Cry, the beloved country.

He sadly concludes: “Soon, SA will be just another African shithole like Zimbabwe and Mozambique, where people hijack bread trucks to get food and where starving children hunt and eat rats.”

Pardon the French used at the end of the tirade,” he begs. “The core message opens a window to what we could have preserved and what we must preserve for ourselves and the masses of our people as family silverware in our national interest.”

I might not agree with every letter of the input above, but it remains food for thought. This synopsis is what many people in the country believe, Mr President, all because we are failing to solve the energy problem in the country. We were told in August 2019 by the deputy president that we will not be experiencing any load shedding.

And yet, we are sitting in the dark.

Can we identify the flaw in our performance and call it “failure to govern”?

Elsewhere, another opinion stated that, “we can shift the blame to Hitachi at Medupi, China Rail at Prasa, etc. What matters the most is that our ANC government and its deployees are the common factor in all these. So, the problem is us, not who we partnered with for the destruction. If it was not Hitachi, China Rail etc, we would have definitely had other looting partners while none of those would have succeeded without us. We are the problem… The destruction is of our making…” I could not agree more.

Perhaps a strategy of placing all SOEs, including Eskom, under business rescue is not such a bad idea. God knows we must do something to get us out of this mess. Is it all about playing chicken, and let’s see who will flinch first between the unions and the government? After what happened at SAA, the unions are set to supposedly not have a repeat of that and so, are they taunting us with their power? Just a taste of what’s to come in the new year. They will make sure we have a Christmas with the lights on so as to be thankful, and then come January, we will be back in the dark.

I say Eskom must also be placed under business rescue, so we can operate within the law to sort out this mess once and for all. At least, I think that is the president’s plan and I agree.

When we bought into the “clean-up” campaign of Cyril Ramaphosa, what did we think was going to happen? To clean up, you have to contend with the filth first and foremost. And the obvious resistance to such a clean-up, because to clean up means getting rid of all the elements that hamper such a clean-up – gremlins in the system, management changes, leadership changes, employee reductions and so much more.

We can try to blame the current leadership all we want, but we know that this clean-up cometh from elsewhere. It comes from a decade of structural and deliberate actions and omissions. State Capture and corruption are what brought us to this point. And before I hear some of you accusing the current leadership’s ineptness in dealing with this crisis, may I remind you that in 2007, the Eskom debt was a mere R40-billion as compared to the now R419-billion. Eskom’s huge staff complement, including fixed-term contractors, has increased to 48,628 in 2018, costing the South African taxpayer R29.5-billion in March 2018.

And yet, we are sitting in the dark.

There are no conspiracy theories in my submission, though I’m so tempted to say it cannot all be so innocent. But perhaps we must accept that 25 years of policy muddling, 10 years of State Capture, five years of mismanagement and one week of torrential rain might just be the only reasons we find ourselves in this darkness. You decide. DM

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