Pravin Gordhan. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS
Pravin Gordhan. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

When Pravin Gordhan was appointed minister of public enterprises in February 2018, Eskom was at the centre of a state that had been captured to benefit the pockets of a small group of people in business and the government.

Good financial management had long been absent from Megawatt Park. An ageing power infrastructure was crippled by insufficient maintenance, the power utility’s workforce was bloated, and two new coal-fired megaprojects had both busted the budget and missed their completion deadlines.

Gordhan inherited a portfolio that former minister and Jacob Zuma-appointee Lynne Brown had run into the ground. But he had the confidence of both President Cyril Ramaphosa and the nation. Hard-working, diligent, scandal-free and possessing rare integrity — these were the words used to describe him when he took up the post.

But as the representative of the shareholder, Gordhan has been unable to work magic during his two-year tenure. Eskom is in a constant battle to keep the lights on, plant failures are routine and debt has ballooned.

Jabu Mabuza’s shock resignation last week as Eskom’s chair is yet another signal that the board and management team have been unable to effect any real change at the power utility. And it’s a telling admission that, as much as Mabuza had a new board, it was never really in charge anyway.

Still, Mabuza’s resignation is welcome: a public servant resigning after making a promise to his head of state that he couldn’t keep is a rare show of accountability. It’s the sort of act that his detractors inside Eskom — those who broke the entity in the first place, and remain there — would never themselves demonstrate.

But having said that, Mabuza’s departure weakens Eskom considerably. It has just acquired a new CEO, André de Ruyter, only to lose its chair. So, in that context, what good would the resignation — or axing — of Gordhan actually do?

The answer is, nothing.

Picture: 123RF/tawhy
Picture: 123RF/tawhy

Since Deputy President David Mabuza last week accused Gordhan and the Eskom board of misleading Ramaphosa about load-shedding, calls for Gordhan’s removal have reached fever pitch. It’s true that he’s a reviled figure within parts of the ANC: his appointment as a personal clean-up emissary of the president has made him a target for the enablers of state capture.

Business Unity SA president Sipho Pityana waded into the discussion this week, saying business is concerned that appointments at Eskom risk becoming caught up in "ANC factional battles that have nothing to do with national interests".

But if getting rid of Gordhan won’t fix Eskom, will moving the power utility to the department of energy help? Again, the answer will be no.

Energy minister Gwede Mantashe’s record of action so far inspires little confidence.

His predecessor, Jeff Radebe, initiated a plan for business to generate 10MW of power without a licence — up from the current 1MW. It’s a quick way to boost output. But that process stalled under Mantashe.

The call by unions like the National Union of Metalworkers of SA for Mantashe to take control of Eskom is nothing more than a transparent bid to have a more labour-friendly minister presiding over an entity which needs to shed jobs.

So, with Gordhan politically weak, can it be that Eskom’s fortunes now rest entirely on De Ruyter’s ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat at SA’s most dysfunctional company? Or will he be spat out in the battle for control of the utility, itself a proxy in the battle for control of the ANC? At this point, it could go either way.