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Power politics: Who is really responsible for the Eskom disaster?

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By Tim Cohen
22 Nov 2021 7

Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

Twitter is an odd combination of a great tool for keeping up and also the ninth circle of hell. Or perhaps the fifth circle, if you go by Dante’s categorisation – the one reserved for wrathful souls who spend eternity waging battle on the River Styx.

As a small contribution to global intellectual wisdom, I unwisely ventured into the issue of the Black Business Council’s (BBC’s) call for Eskom CEO André de Ruyter and the board to resign after the spate of power cuts over the past month or so.

I made the point that, since Eskom’s debt was R40-billion at the start of former president Jacob Zuma’s presidency and R440-billion when he left office, the problem was not going to be fixed quickly.

Response? What followed was a thoughtful, rational set of contributions, with a deft understanding of the complexity of the situation and the compound dynamics involved.

Ah, actually, not so much.

The reaction was an unmitigated frenzy. I don’t think I have had this kind of response to any previous tweet. The issues are too complicated for 280 characters, so, for what it’s worth, this is my response.

The largest category of objections was racial, because this is South Africa; I was supporting De Ruyter because of his skin pigmentation. If he was black, many argued, he would have been gone long ago. Fair enough.

We are all frustrated by the power cuts, and it’s easy to see the BBC’s call in that light. The organisation is under pressure from its own constituency to  make something happen. But, actually, I wasn’t supporting him or not supporting him; I was just making a point about the dimensions of the problem. Fixing this is not, as it happens, like flicking a switch.

The second category was concerned that I was unfairly targeting Zuma, whereas Eskom’s issues predated the Zuma presidency and continued after he left. That is true in a literal sense, but on this issue the critics were right: I do blame Zuma first and foremost for our predicament. There is no doubt in my mind that he bears primary responsibility for the mess we are in today.

I have written before about all the parties and circumstances that are to blame for the Eskom crisis, and there are many. But the reason I blame Zuma in particular bears some explanation.

He came into power on the back of what some have called the “coalition of the wounded”, or perhaps the “coalition of discontented”. Three groups dominated: the communists, the trade unionists and the business opportunists, let us call them. Less delicately, we could call them the freeloaders or the rent seekers. The communists were angry with then-president Thabo Mbeki for not implementing socialism, the unionists were angry because they always are, and the business opportunists were angry at Mbeki for being honest.

Once in power, they found they had a problem. Their agendas could not be put into practice because, although they controlled the political structure, the bureaucracy was still in the hands of the old guard.

So began the process of ousting all the competent bureaucrats and replacing them with useful idiots, beginning with the security apparatus but moving on quickly to the state-owned enterprises. The SOEs were targeted because they were the soft spot for looting, operating as they do outside the Public Sector Finance Act.

So, in 2011, eight out of 10 Eskom board members were sacked by the Zuma administration. In the following decade, Eskom had nine CEOs. It had four CEOs in the previous 30 years.

What caused this incredible rate of churn? The simple answer is the contestation between the three factions. A corner was lifted on this in the GuptaLeaks exposé: the CV of aspirant CEO Collin Matjila was circulating among the Gupta brothers, their business associate Salim Essa and Duduzane Zuma, before his appointment in 2014. As it happens, Matjila only lasted a few months, in which time his only notable act was to spend R43-million on the New Age business breakfast sponsorship.

The Guptas finally got Brian Molefe appointed, which, as it turns out, was a big payday for them. With CEOs moving through the revolving door, Eskom’s professional staff saw the writing on the wall and began departing in droves. And thus started the downward spiral.

So this is why I think De Ruyter should stay. It’s not because of his race. It’s not even because his term of office has been without fault – whose is? It’s because what Eskom needs most of all is stability. As the aphorism goes, if you are going through hell, keep going. And maybe, just maybe, you will reach the heady heights of the fourth circle of hell. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 7

  • The only Eskom CEO I’ve wanted fired for load-shedding was Jacob Maroga in 2008 because we had no clue what was going on and the load-shedding schedules were inaccurate back then.

  • “Eskom’s professional staff saw the writing on the wall and began departing in droves.” That is, the remnants of the professional staff, the first wave already started leaving in 1995/1996 when the 5 year empowerment plan was achieved in just 12 months by offering early retirements and separation packages.

  • If the status quo is using race to defend itself, its going to be inconvievable that anything gets fixed by somebody falling out of the desired demographic. When will our country stop using such meaningless criteria to run this country. Get over it already we need to work as one.

  • I would just like to note an error in relation to one point:

    “The SOEs were targeted because they were the soft spot for looting, operating as they do outside the Public Sector Finance Act.”

    SOEs (public enterprises) do not operate outside of the Public Finance Management Act, 1999, they are regulated by that Act.

    The problem is that the Act has not been effectively enforced in relation to the SOEs that have been looted, not that the legislation is not applicable.

  • The ESKOM debacle, along with the glaring failure of other SOEs, highlights the obvious; politics and politicians should not be involved in SOEs at all. Politicians should deal with policy, social services and other necessary functions required to run the country; they are NOT business people.

    Only private sector businessmen and women, capable of starting, managing and operating companies as going concerns, should be involved in businesses such as SAA, ESKOM, TELKOM et al, free from interference from political incompetents, thieves and freeloaders intent on raping the state coffers for their own benefit.

    Then I doubt we’d be in the predicament in which we now find ourselves.

  • De Ruyter said that there is not an engineer on the Eskom board. That is just a symptom of the problem. It is like a cricket selection committee consisting of only people that have never played the game. It beggars belief. Eskom is an engineering company and should at least have engineers on the board, if not run by engineers. (Those that think only accountants can run a company may like to look at Tesla – run by an engineer).