President Cyril Ramaphosa was tempting fate when he glowingly described the massive, pollution-belching, coal-fired power station at Medupi as a “fitting symbol of the importance of our state-owned enterprises”. His words had hardly been printed in his weekly newsletter of 9 December 2019 when the conveyer belt carrying coal into the massive boilers of the power station failed due to its electrical supply panel burning out on the same day. Soon, stage 6 “load-shedding” was instituted by Eskom for the first time, leaving consumers without electricity for about half of every 24-hour cycle as Eskom sheds 6,000Kw of its generating capacity each day.
Self-assured hubris took a serious knock as the president found himself assuring the public that anger over the “devastating” power cuts was “understandable” even before the ink on his newsletter was dry.
In a way, he was right to describe Medupi as a symbol, however, it is a symbol of the turpitude and mismanagement that is governance in the style of the ANC. Quite apart from the inability to keep the lights on, the very manner in which the Medupi project was conceived and executed reeks of impropriety, corruption and “too little too late”.
Twenty one years ago, Eskom advised the Cabinet that unless proactive steps were taken then, the nation would find itself in the dark at inconvenient times. In 1998, the Minister of Public Enterprise was Jeff Radebe. It appears that in the hope of privatising the supply of electricity, it was decided to turn a deaf ear towards the requests then tabled by Eskom for additional funding for building the necessary infrastructure to meet anticipated increased demand. That hope has not materialised, indeed, quite the opposite is now the dominant sentiment and the consequence is that the nation is irritated and disrupted by irregular power cuts of varying lengths, often unheralded and invariably at the most inconvenient of times.
Load shedding has spawned a lot of anger and frustration. It is devastating to the green shoots of revival in the economy. The threats of litigation claiming damages against Eskom for losses sustained in business and agriculture as a consequence of the interruption of power supply have been replaced by seething resignation, or “work around” solutions. Opposition politicians make hay out of the distress brought on by the inconvenience of load shedding. This is certainly a time for cool heads and clear plans.
Before it was announced that the Cabinet is responsible for not heeding Eskom’s warnings over 20 years ago, the Public Protector took up the issues with Eskom with a view to, well, protecting the public against unnecessary power cuts or “load shedding” as Eskom prefers to call it. The Human Rights Commission, back then, also expressed an interest in the situation. Whitewash is the best way to describe the outcome of these interventions.
While it is so that one will search in vain in the Bill of Rights for a right to a reliable electricity supply, there are nevertheless several rights guaranteed in it which can be adversely affected by the absence of electrical power, to which increasing numbers of the population have become accustomed.
There is the right to dignity: how undignified is it to have routine activities rudely interrupted by unwelcome darkness? More seriously, there is the right to life. Stories of people dying on operating tables in hospitals in which the power supply is unexpectedly interrupted are on record.
Eleven years ago, the BBC World television news programme gave prominence to the tale of the foreign tourists left dangling from a mountain top in a cable car whose journey had been interrupted by an outage in Cape Town. The terror and distress they suffered is clearly a human rights violation as everyone has the right to freedom and security.
Freedom of religion, expression, assembly and association can, in the absence of electricity, go unfulfilled as can freedom of movement by electrified train. So upset by the deprivation of this right were the rail commuters of Soshanguve that they torched some rolling stock in order to bring their displeasure to the attention of the authorities when load shedding was first implemented.
All citizens have the right to choose their trade, occupation or profession freely. This right becomes illusory in the absence of electricity for far more occupations than those directly involved with electricity.
Rights to housing, health care, social security and education cannot be delivered properly without a consistent supply of power, and electricity is the power supply of choice.
Children’s rights are paramount in our constitutional dispensation and are very much interlinked with the right to basic education entrenched in the Bill of Rights.
Finally, the right of access to the courts can effectively only be properly exercised when the courts have a power supply for the purpose of recording evidence, lighting and the like.
The Constitution requires of the state that it should respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights contained in the Bill of Rights, some of which have been briefly discussed above. The load shedding to which the nation has been subjected of late is clearly a violation of many of these rights, albeit indirectly.
In all of the discussion and debate around solutions to the Eskom dilemma, it ought to be borne in mind that the promotion of human rights for all remains at the cornerstone of our democratic order, which is aimed at establishing dignity, promoting equality and the enjoyment of freedom. These goals cannot easily be achieved in the best of circumstances; their achievement is considerably set back if hours of schooling, production, work and service are lost each day, week and month during which preventable outages occur.
Dealing with the crisis has to be a national priority, not only for the state, but also for the individual. Both on the macro and the micro level, there are solutions available for implementation as a matter of urgency. Reasonable and accountable leadership, sane and sensible measures and cooperation on all sides can still rescue the tourism potential of the 2019 festive season.
On the micro or individual level, various strategies are already in place. Our government is in a position to encourage and assist householders to alleviate the situation: gas, solar and wind options are available. All expenditure on such items ought to be fully tax deductible, at least until an uninterrupted supply of electricity is again available. Geyser blankets and time switches for geysers should be made compulsory, with all reasonable expenditure incurred on their installation being tax deductible.
On the macro level, there is a lot that Eskom, soon to be under new management, can do to clean up its act insofar as maintenance and upkeep of existing plants are concerned.
A properly organised and planned maintenance programme ought to see far less than a third of the generating capacity down at any given time for repairs and maintenance work. If all or nearly all of the generating equipment is working all or nearly all of the time, the amount of electricity available for consumption should render rolling mass blackouts a thing of the past in short order.
If qualified staff is required to replace deployed cadres, the necessary recruitment should be put in hand. If equipment and spares are needed, adequate supplies must be laid on without delay. If better (and lower paid) management would assist, cut the dead wood and manage properly. Red tape delaying progress toward increasing capacity should be ruthlessly cut, without compromising safety and efficiency.
If time zones, daylight saving and staggered seasonal starting times for schools and the public service will smooth peak periods of demand and reduce the outages, implement the necessary measures immediately. [This will have the pleasant spin-off of alleviating traffic congestion.] If heavy industrial consumers can be encouraged to use power more in off peak periods by utilising shift workers in these periods and less when there is a general demand for power, take steps to adjust tariffs to make it worth their while.
If there is a problem with financing all this, give consideration to getting Chancellor House to “pay back the money” it undeservedly and illegally made out of its deal with Hitachi. Those with long memories will recall that super-profits were made when Chancellor House, the investment arm of the ANC, was improperly allowed to acquire 25% of Hitachi Power Africa, whose tender for Medupi’s massive boilers was, surprise surprise, successful. Hitachi has been fined in the United States for illegally entering into that deal. Chancellor House sails on with impunity unbounded and entitlement intact. Billions are reportedly involved and all of the profit made ought to be disgorged by Chancellor House due to the impropriety of its involvement in the tender. Amazingly, the head of fund-raising at the ANC was also chair of Eskom and in charge of the procurement of the boilers by Hitachi Power Africa, all at the same time.
Until these matters are addressed accountably, Medupi will remain a symbol of ANC turpitude and mismanagement, whether or not it is the fourth largest installation of its kind in the world. DM
Paul Hoffman is a director of Accountability Now.
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