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Eskom: Who is to blame?

Jan 15 2015 06:56
*Leopold Scholtz
IF WE are to believe news reports in Tuesday’s newspapers, Eskom is on the verge of a “total network breakdown”. Those, at least, were the quoted words of Eskom’s head, Tshediso Matona, this week to – as the report put it – “shocked business leaders”.

READ: Fear of unforeseen Eskom system collapse

A matter which has already intrigued me for many years is the question why some countries are relative successes, some less so, and others fail or at best putter along.

Now, this is obviously a very complex question which requires a long and complex answer – which nobody will therefore bother to read. Therefore, in the full knowledge that many factors are at play here, let me identify only one today: policy choices.

Politics is to a large extent about choices. To oversimplify: do I opt for socialism or capitalism? Do I play the race card? Do I utilise the state as an instrument for development, or as an opportunity for plunder? Do I surround myself with sycophants or independent thinkers who will honestly tell me when I go off the rails?

Zuma chooses to bury his head in the sand

Regarding Eskom and the power crisis facing South Africa, President Jacob Zuma and the ANC government have clearly made a choice: to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is just hunky-dory. Just give us your trust and a little time, everything will turn out right, so don’t worry, okay?

As a matter of fact, to the extent that we do have problems, these are all the fault of the nasty bunch of racists who used to govern the country. Power outages? Moi? God forbid! We inherited the previous gang’s problems, which we are in the process of correcting!

He was quoted: “When commentators comment on energy they forget this (that apartheid was responsible for the lack of energy). They want to put the blame on the democratic government.”

Ja well, no fine. I am afraid that our Dear Leader is – how can I put it delicately – somewhat subverting the noble cause of truth.

The fact is that the government stood before one of those pesky choices in 1998. In that year the then minister of mineral and energy affairs, Penuell Maduna, tabled a white paper on energy in which it was predicted that South Africa would experience a shortage of electricity by 2007 if new power stations were not built.

At the time, deputy president Thabo Mbeki wanted to privatise Eskom. And, therefore, Eskom was forbidden to build new power stations as he wanted the private sector to do so.

And there the matter stalled, sinking away in the government’s consciousness like water in the desert sand. Not until 2003 did the government wake up and order the building of several new power stations.

And even then things went south. The first new station, Medupi, was supposed to start working last month, but – according to expert Chris Yelland – “an inadequate design of the temporary piping that blows steam to the atmosphere” moved the completion of the station well into 2015.

READ: Yelland's 15-point plan for Eskom to solve crisis

This was not the only choice which landed us in the present mess. The other was an ideological one, to elevate the population composition to a rigid, unchangeable policy. This has had a negative effect on all levels of state service delivery, including Eskom’s capacity to furnish South Africa with electricity.

Already in 2006, well before the first outages of 2008, trade union Solidarity warned that the ANC’s policy of affirmative action had resulted in a dire shortage of skills and experience among Eskom’s technicians. Solidarity conducted a survey at the beginning of that year among its Eskom members and, according to an analysis prepared by the union shortly afterwards, “it emerged strongly that ageing and badly maintained power stations and a major skills shortage would lead to a power crisis in the next few years”.

Fears have come to fuition

What Solidarity feared has indeed happened.

In addition, in November last year cracks, brought about by faulty maintenance, were discovered in a coal silo at the Majuba power station. It then transpired that Eskom was suffering a coal shortage because a supply of coal had been left out in the open where it was ruined by rain. (Perhaps they didn’t realise that rain actually contains water.)

READ: Eskom mum about crack in silo

And now, it appears, the corporation is running out of money and does not have enough cash for the diesel needed to keep gas turbines turning over. As a matter of fact, Eskom needs about R20bn by month’s end to keep the country going. A tiny detail about that is that this money will, no doubt, come out of taxpayers’ pockets.

As Chris Yelland has been quoted, “Throwing money at this is not the solution. It will become like a black hole if you don’t address the underlying issues; it simply means that in a period of time they will need more money.”

The matter is serious. The South African Chamber of Commerce has warned that the country could lose investors as foreign companies lose confidence in the country. According to Eskom itself, in 2010 the corporation “contributed approximately 1.3% of total South African GDP through its core activities”.

What can we deduce from all of this? Correct. It is all apartheid’s fault.

* Leopold Scholtz is an independent political analyst who lives in Europe. Views expressed are his own.

eskom  |  leopold scholtz  |  load shedding
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