Banking Association SA MD, Cas Coovadia. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Banking Association SA MD, Cas Coovadia. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Lobby group the Banking Association SA (Basa) has urged President Cyril Ramaphosa to prioritise the country’s wider interests rather than securing votes for the ANC if he is to boost confidence in the economy before elections in May.

Ramaphosa’s plan to split Eskom into three separate parts has met resistance from union federation Cosatu, which has been in an alliance with the ANC and the SACP since 1994. While his administration has replaced boards and top executives at state-owned enterprises (SOEs), including Eskom, it hasn’t embraced the job cuts needed to bring costs down or the privatisation of state assets.

“It’s crazy in this day and age that we still can’t say privatisation, but some sort of private-equity stake has got to be there,” said Basa MD Cas Coovadia. “That brings in money, it reduces the state’s burden, brings in more accountability, expertise.”

This week’s rolling blackouts across SA have driven home just how much damage years of mismanagement, corruption and  lack of maintenance have done to the 96-year-old utility. Saddled with debt equivalent to about 8% of the country’s GDP, Eskom isn’t able to produce enough electricity to meet demand or fund its operations, while SAA is surviving off government guarantees and the SABC is struggling to pay its staff.

“Unless there is some serious restructuring of these organisations it would be quite irresponsible for banks to lend,” Coovadia said. “It’s not that banks don’t want to lend, it’s that banks have certain criteria.”

The general election in three months will be the first since the ANC forced Jacob Zuma to quit as president after a scandal-marred tenure that spanned almost nine years and saw its support decline. Ramaphosa said in parliament on Thursday that he will meet with Cosatu over the government’s plans with Eskom.

The president needs to rise “above the fray” and take “decisions in the national interests of the country and not the ANC”, Coovadia said. “Ramaphosa is probably the most pragmatic leader we’ve got at the moment, who understands the issues” and a big win in the elections will give him a mandate from voters to push harder in acting on the challenges facing the country, he said.

Ramaphosa is seeking to attract foreign investors put off by past policy flip-flops, and has managed to secure at least R300bn ($21bn) of his target to raise $100bn in investments over five years. He has announced measures to rebuild institutions such as the national directorate of public prosecutions and set in motion several commissions of inquiry into graft.

Eskom said it will probably end load-shedding on Friday after it repairs some power plants and replenishes diesel and water supplies at others. Still, the utility said any further unexpected breakdowns could see a resumption of power rationing.

While plans to split the company into generation, distribution and transmission businesses under a state holding company are a step in the right direction, “the critical issue is we need quick movement on implementation”, Coovadia said. While SA has seen some fruits from Ramaphosa’s efforts, “we need to take the hard decisions to grow that economy”.