Men play soccer beneath Eskom electricity pylons. Picture: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Men play soccer beneath Eskom electricity pylons. Picture: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The ANC has had numerous slogans over the years, retreaded for different election cycles. Few will forget the 1994 election debut of the party to the motto of "a better life for all". At the time, it was a galvanising slogan, easy to rally behind.

During the Jacob Zuma years, and maybe a bit before, the slogan became a far more pragmatic one, with deep personal resonance for many of the party’s leaders: "innocent until proven guilty". It’s a mantra you still hear, of course, most recently from the former president’s son, Duduzane Zuma, who reminded Zandile Gumede that she needn’t give up her government role.

Legally, it’s hard to argue with. Ethically and politically, it’s a slogan that has cost the ANC badly — both in public perception, and in votes — as senior leaders hide behind it, staying in jobs for which they’re either ill-equipped, or manifestly unprepared. President Cyril Ramaphosa is now moving to shift this thinking, demanding politicians step aside before they’re found guilty by a court of law. For a ruling party often crushed by due process and personal loyalty, and kept in check by labour unions, this is a big change.

Now, encouragingly, this spirit appears to be taking root at SA’s laggardly state-owned enterprises — notably Eskom.

Last week, as the country suffered another morale-sapping bout of load-shedding, Eskom CEO André de Ruyter moved swiftly to suspend the managers of its Tutuka and Kendal power stations. In the statement, De Ruyter didn’t speak of their specific failures, other than that the breakdowns were "unacceptable" and there needs to be accountability.

"While it is true that the ageing fleet is plagued by legacy issues of neglect and omitted maintenance, and is therefore susceptible to unpredictable breakdowns, it is also true that this situation is exacerbated by serious apathetic behaviour by some management," he said.

Critically, this tough love appears to have the blessing of both the board and the department of public enterprises.

De Ruyter’s statement that the "previous culture of weak consequence management will no longer be the norm" is a step change for the utility and, let’s hope, the country. It would be optimistic to think that a blizzard of consequence is about to descend on nonperforming staff at the hapless power utility which, notwithstanding that it has managed to accumulate almost half a trillion rand in debt, is unable to produce more electricity than it did a decade ago. And for this performance, Eskom charges you 460% more for power today than it did in 2007.

If De Ruyter is doing the right things now, a sterner test will be in whether he can drastically prune Eskom’s wage bill, and cut the ineffective staff the company has managed to amass.

But if his move this week to attach the bank account of the Matjhabeng Local Municipality, which owes Eskom R3.4bn, is any indication, there are many inside the utility who should be quaking now.

And outside too: Eskom is owed R31bn by various municipalities and other defaulters. De Ruyter will know that he can’t ask an increasingly smaller number of people to pay ever-higher power prices to subsidise the delinquents — especially when those inside the entity don’t seem bothered by the blackouts crippling SA.

The suspension of power station managers fits neatly into the principles outlined by Ramaphosa, aimed at cleaning up and fixing the country. It’s a subtle, but critical shift: away from finding excuses to assist those who may have caused the problem, and leaning instead towards those dealing with the consequence. It’s called accountability.

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