Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

The government is facing potentially unpopular decisions needed to fix state-owned companies that are drowning in debt, bleeding cash and fettering the economy, which may alienate voters ahead of the 2019 elections. So far, it has shied away from hard choices.

Companies such as Eskom, SAA and the SABC are reeling after repeated management and strategy bungles and have indicated they need state aid and staff cuts to survive. While President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration has replaced boards and top executives, it has opposed suggestions of mass retrenchments  across the board or privatisation and more bailouts at power utility Eskom.

“There are probably going to be no major decisions and certainly no new strategies developed or started until after the election,” said Ian Cruickshanks, chief economist at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

“The cost of production in all of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) is going to continue escalating, the revenue will continue diminishing and if you look at what the government is doing about it, the long silence means nothing,” Cruickshanks said.

The May elections will be the first since the governing ANC forced Jacob Zuma to quit after a scandal-marred tenure that spanned almost nine years and saw its support decline. While opinion polls suggest the party’s fortunes have turned since Ramaphosa took office in February and it will win the vote outright, it can ill afford to alienate labour union allies that oppose job cuts and asset sales. 

Looting spree

Taxpayers would likely frown on giving SOEs more money after probes by the nation’s anti-graft ombudsman and legislators showed they were systemically looted of billions of rand during Zuma’s tenure. A struggling economy has also limited room to manoeuvre if it is to stick to its expenditure ceiling and budget-deficit targets.

“I think they’ve [the government] got cold feet, even beyond the elections,” said Ivor Sarakinsky, a senior lecturer at Wits University’s School of Governance. “When they look at the numbers and the general increase in unemployment, to contribute to that by reducing the number of people inside the state-owned enterprises will have quite a significant socioeconomic impact.”

Ratings companies and the auditor-general have called the parlous finances of state entities as a key risk to the economy. While public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, who oversees the seven biggest SOEs, acknowledges the situation is untenable, he has given little indication of what’s being done about it, save to say that turnaround plans are being worked on that will seek to minimise job losses.

“We have a problem, not only in Eskom but in many entities where the cost structure of the entity doesn’t justify the current operations and revenue in those entities,” Gordhan told reporters on December 6.

Eskom strategy

Eskom, which provides about 95% of the country’s electricity, is by far the government’s biggest headache. It has racked up R419bn in debt, most of it state-guaranteed, isn’t selling enough power to cover its costs and has fallen behind on plant maintenance, resulting in widespread outages.

The utility employs about 48,000 people, up from 32,600 a decade ago, and a World Bank study published in 2016 found it was potentially overstaffed by 66%. Eskom has said it may have to fire as many as 16,000 workers and it will finalise a new strategy in 2019.

Ramaphosa last week named a team to help turn around Eskom after saying a bailout would boost national indebtedness. Gordhan intervened in June when a management decision to freeze pay triggered protests.

“There are critical decisions that have to be made at Eskom and it’s urgent,” said Philippa Rodseth, executive director of the Manufacturing Circle, a Johannesburg-based industry association. “It’s certainly not something that can comfortably wait until after elections because the manufacturing sector needs reliable energy supply.”

SAA has lost money for the past seven years. Despite having secured R19.1bn in government debt guarantees and a R5bn allocation in the October mid-term budget to help it repay loans, it still faces a R3.5bn cash shortfall by the end of March. Finance minister Tito Mboweni’s suggestion that the national carrier be shut because it isn’t viable was shot down by his cabinet colleagues.

The SABC, which lost R633m in the past financial year, has said it needs to fire almost a third of its 3,376 staff and 1,200 freelancers after the Treasury declined its request for a R3bn cash injection. Four members of its interim board quit after the government opposed staff cuts, citing political interference in their work.

SOEs will probably have to muddle through for now, with the government allocating them some additional funds from within the existing budget rather than taking the tough decisions that will benefit the economy in the long term, according to Cruickshanks.

“They are stuck in that ‘win the elections first’ mode,” he said. —Bloomberg