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Ferial Haffajee: Gordhan and Mogoro take the Eskom frog out of boiling water

Apr 04 2019 12:31
Ferial Haffajee, Fin24

Everywhere you look, South Africans are acclimatising to life without regular electricity. 

Décor magazines offer hints of where to find the latest design in solar-powered lights and really cool torches – I’ve gone to buy some. Aromatherapy candles are said to take away the stress of load shedding – I’ve gone to buy some.

Then there are listicles - an article in lists - of how you can stock up for the hours and hours of being powerless by building a load shedding first aid kit: solar blankets, power packs, board games, cold food, warm braais. I have such a kit. 

Even the psychologists are getting in on it, publishing popular blog posts of how load shedding is good for families and friendships as it makes you connect without the distraction of television, always on data and the addiction to our devices. 

Do you see what is starting to happen here? 

South Africans and our legendary resilience have kicked in to make a plan around it – creating memes, shouting at Eskom, but in the main, getting on with life and making power cuts a part of it. We had become the frogs in the boiling water, the name given to the practice of not realising you are in crisis until it’s too late, like frogs who acclimatise to the heating of water without jumping out until it’s too late. 

We are becoming Nigerian – my friends there had told me how they had long ago come to expect nothing from their power utility, even though the country owns the richest oil fields in Africa.  

So, I found Wednesday’s report-back to South Africa on the electricity situation by Public Enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan a refreshing exercise in accountability. Two weeks ago, he said he would report back in 10 to 14 days, and he made the deadline: such is the tyranny of our lowered expectations from our leaders that this in itself is notable. 

As much as South Africans may not believe in the tortured idea of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Dawn, my careful audit of his state of the nation address between February 2018 and this year has shown that he did about 80% of the things he said he would do.

The results are slow to be felt, but I like that there is more accountability being baked into the system. 

The details of the Eskom briefing are well-canvassed: Gordhan has pulled together three teams who have diagnosed what is wrong at the fleet of rickety power stations that continue to power South Africa’s grid. They are old and under-maintained – now Eskom CEO Phakamani Hadebe has a R45bn budget to get them into the second of the power station life stages. 

There will be light load-shedding through winter, said Gordhan, who promised it will not go beyond Stage 1, if at all. After being whacked by a week of Stage 4, this feels manageable. 

Gordhan has shared more information than most South Africans can absorb – recordings of what a boiler tube system looks like to explain why bursting tubes led to the big blackouts.  There are graphs and charts to explain the grid, available and unavailable power. I guess he works from the premise that knowledge is power, and that if you know why the lights are going off, it takes some of the fear out of the national mood. 

The other person who has shown leadership is Bernard Magoro, Eskom’s GM and System Operator. Magoro is an engineer and he is the person who runs the operational centre that monitors the grid 24/7. He is the person who decides when and how much to load shed and on Wednesday, he painstakingly and dispassionately explained how he and his team had prevented grid slippage late in March through Stage 4 cuts.

Twice in the past fortnight, Magoro has addressed the media and public to explain how this system works, and I have for the first time felt like we are not being taken for granted or shielded from the truth. 

Magoro is a technocrat, the kind of independent professional we should guard with our lives in the public service. Whereas the recent story of Eskom is pockmarked with scandals, Magoro is a symbol of how the utility may be retrieved by the hard work of committed professionals. 

Perhaps, like the boiling frog, I misread the crisis we face, but Gordhan and Mogoro have shown that there is still servant leadership in these trying times.   



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