A shopper uses a torch during an electricity load-shedding blackout in Hillcrest. Picture: REUTERS/Rogan Ward
A shopper uses a torch during an electricity load-shedding blackout in Hillcrest. Picture: REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Cast your mind back: it’s October 2007, and SA is in uncharted waters. Eskom, the state-owned power company, has just imposed load-shedding — a euphemism for managed blackouts — and its customers, the public, are apoplectic. Talk-show lines ring off the hook, newspapers demand that the culprits walk the plank, and the rand staggers as if punched.

The country was a dark mess: business ground to a halt, restaurants shut and traffic snarled up. President Thabo Mbeki then emerged, sheepish, and apologised for having failed to act earlier. But, at least, our political leaders seemed to care. At least metro police officers emerged to direct traffic.

Today, 12 years later, we’ve gone backwards. Eskom this week declared stage 6 load-shedding — the highest level yet. Only this time, nobody emerged immediately to apologise. Not President Cyril Ramaphosa, not public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, not energy minister Gwede Mantashe.

With traffic lights out of commission, intersections remain unmanned, leaving motorists to gamely negotiate the stop-start chaos on their own.

The truth is, everyone is pretty much on their own. Ramaphosa seems to have given up, his "new dawn" about as radiant as the average house at 2am during a blackout. Get used to it, the government says: it’s the new normal.

But if it thinks that response cuts it, it is sorely mistaken. The level of anger is spiking.

Even Ramaphosa’s most loyal supporters, if they had their way, would probably choose to put the government and the ANC into business rescue, alongside SAA.

It illustrates that as much as Ramaphosa’s ascension was lauded in December 2017, the tide has turned — his inaction, his politicking while the country burns and his self-deception about the urgency of it all have torched his political capital.

Even Gordhan, who was lauded as a crusader against state capture and the ruinous last few years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, is now being excoriated as part of the problem, rather than the solution.

On radio this week Bruce Whitfield, perhaps SA’s finest business journalist, said: "Possibly it’s time for [Gordhan] to step aside and let someone [else] do the job of making the hard calls, because he’s not making the hard calls."

There are deeper implications of the power crisis. For one thing, the entirely justifiable backlash against the ANC’s statism — its desire to ensure the government remains in charge of running key institutions — means the odds of implementing new measures, like National Health Insurance (NHI), have widened considerably.

NHI would entail creating a central pool of funding citizens contribute to which would finance medical costs. But since it’s now clear the ANC leadership struggles to run anything more complicated than a car owned by Fred Flintstone, it’s unlikely it will get the go-ahead for any new centralised, state-controlled funding vehicles.

Mantashe, too, is taking flak for his role in creating what will surely be another recession. After GDP fell 0.6% in the last quarter, the great power switch-off will, but for a miracle, ensure a second successive quarter of a shrinking GDP. Voilà: a recession. A self-imposed one at that.

Mantashe has the power to sign the papers on his desk that will allow companies like Sasol, Mondi and Sappi to sell their generating capacity into the grid to feed the country. Yet he has done nothing. As columnist Peter Bruce put it, Mantashe is the "ANC incarnate".

Which is why, when Bank Zero chair Michael Jordaan suggests that Eskom black out the municipalities that owe it R26bn first before cutting off paying customers, you know it’s a notion the governing party won’t entertain.

This aloofness has a price, though. Unlike 2008, the public fury has a different quality to it now. There’s an Arab Spring flavour about it. The ANC’s incompetence and indifference, condemning the country, literally, to live in the dark, has moved it one step closer to its reckoning.