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Blackout: These days, you can pay for your power and still not get it. Picture: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
Blackout: These days, you can pay for your power and still not get it. Picture: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Just days before the local government elections – and with Eskom plunging SA into stage 4 load-shedding – the ANC has entered a dimension of spin that’s surely the envy of even the good doctor Iqbal Survé. So decoupled from reality are its statements that it’s starting to sound more and more like an opposition party.

Take Fikile “Mr Fix” Mbalula. According to The Sowetan, he took time out from lauding the ANC’s new – if decades late – local government barometer on Wednesday to bewail the shape of SA’s state-owned entities (SOEs). “The ANC cannot defend mediocrity in Eskom, Prasa [the Passenger Rail Agency of SA] and everywhere,” said the minister responsible for the bastion of incompetence that is Prasa, and an exemplar of mediocrity in his own right. “The ANC expects the best.”

Then there was acting secretary-general Jessie Duarte, speaking at the same event. “Where are we on the Eskom issue now? We are demanding an answer. Why is this thing not resolved?” she asked what one can only imagine was a thoroughly bemused audience. “We can’t go on like this. Every day we now have a message that says there will be load-shedding. It sounds like it’s never going to end … Our people need proper answers.”

Further afield, party treasurer-general and enthusiastic tither Paul Mashatile also expressed concerns about the state-owned power utility. Referencing early warnings around pending capacity shortages, he said: “A report came out during Thabo [Mbeki’s] time and said capacity [should be increased]. Why didn’t we do it? Those who were responsible, who were ministers of that, do we think anything happened to them? They probably retained their positions, and today we are in the dark.”

How astute of him to notice.

Underscoring the lack of forward planning, he asked: “Why do we still have one power-generating company in SA when China has five?”

Leaving aside the appropriateness of comparing the electricity generation needs of country with 59-million people and one with 1.4-billion, the real question Mashatile should be asking is: who has ultimately been responsible for Eskom – and for energy policy, more specifically – for the past 27 years?

You don’t get much better than ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe, though. He’s convinced Eskom’s ramp up to stage 4 ahead of the elections is a result of the “deliberate actions of someone in Eskom for political ends”.

It’s also “a direct affront to the ANC’s commitment in our manifesto to ensure safe and reliable electricity supply to our communities”, he added.

You’d swear Eskom spent two decades intentionally digging a R400bn debt hole and strangling its own operating capacity just to spite the ANC in 2021.

You’d swear, too, that the ruling party bears not a jot of responsibility for this black hole. In fact, the obverse is true: as the ruling party, the ANC has kept a tight rein on the country’s largest SOE.

Eskom and the ANC: a potted history

Mashatile is right on one count: the now-amnesiac ANC had plenty of time to fix SA’s power crisis. Back in 1998, Eskom warned then president Mbeki that demand would outstrip supply by 2007 unless new generation capacity was brought online. Mbeki’s solution? Slap a moratorium on new-build projects by Eskom to encourage private sector investment.

Only, for that to work, the government would have had to put a bit of effort into the regulatory environment (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

By 2004 the penny was starting to drop. So the government gave Eskom the go-ahead to invest in new-build projects. Instead of broadening the energy mix, construction began on the coal-guzzling albatrosses of Medupi and Kusile – way too late to avert the rolling blackouts that struck, as predicted, in late 2007.

Then there was the government’s directive to “keep the lights on” for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. That drove the power utility into a coal-buying spree (at inflated prices, I may add), and saw necessary maintenance of the ageing fleet deferred.

And we haven’t even got to the Guptas, and the era of state capture, where the public enterprises minister stacked the Eskom board with Gupta acolytes; coal contracts were cancelled at power stations situated adjacent to coal mines so that inferior coal could be trucked in at a higher cost; money for plant refurbishments was diverted; and the wholesale looting of the power utility commenced.

Let’s not forget, also, that Cyril Ramaphosa, as deputy president, oversaw the “war room” tasked with turning around the ailing Eskom back in 2015. And though he did finally overhaul the board in 2018, and install respected businessman Phakamani Hadebe as CEO, he and public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan hung Hadebe out to dry when he tried to institute a wage freeze. (Hadebe resigned 17 months into the job citing poor health, but sources at the time told Reuters he’d felt “excluded from important decisions affecting the utility”.)

As for Medupi and Kusile: the mega-stations were supposed to be completed by 2015 at a cost of R163.2bn. Last year, Bloomberg reported the anticipated final cost to be R451bn, including interest and fitting them for environmental compliance. 

And while Medupi was, in theory, completed this year, and Kusile is supposed to be ready next year, both are already knee-deep in repairs. See, they have to fix design flaws – in particular those linked to Japanese company Hitachi, which, in a partnership with ANC investment arm Chancellor House, won the tender for the boiler works. (Hitachi in 2015 paid $19m to the US Securities & Exchange Commission in settlement after it was charged with allegedly making improper payments to the ANC in relation to the Medupi and Kusile contracts.)

Fast-forward to today, and we have coal-loving mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe, who has dragged his feet at increasing generation capacity and broadening the energy mix (yet seems to have shown uncharacteristic alacrity in trying to lock SA into a 20-year “emergency procurement” contract – an absurdity if ever there was one (hello, Karpowership).

In a not-at-all suspiciously timed announcement, given a pending election, Mantashe on Thursday night announced the preferred bidders for bid window 5 of the renewable energy independent power producer procurement programme.

Not buying the hype

Make no mistake, Eskom is not without fault in the power crisis that engulfs SA today. But for the ruling party to pass this off as something entirely separate from its own meddlesome machinations is clumsy deflection. To do so mere days before an election that’s very much focused on its failure to deliver services is deeply cynical politicking.

The ANC knows it’s against the ropes – the party’s plaintive plea for votes in exchange for a promise to “do better” says as much. But to parcel off the problems of SA as creatures of someone else’s creation is as disingenuous as launching a governance barometer – apparently a means to improve service delivery – with five days to go before the polls.

Let’s call it what it is: a thinly-veiled, last-minute grub for votes.

De Villiers is editor of the FM’s Features section

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