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Eskom crisis: ill-equipped leadership a glaring reality

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) – Previous CEO’s of Eskom, Brian Molefe and Matshela Koko, are often at the forefront of the government’s blame game. But these were the very men that kept the lights on, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

“And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light, but Eskom’s Electricity Board in South Africa said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.”

These decade old words of Irish comedian and playwright Spike Milligan could well apply to current day South Africa. With an almost daily scripture of loadshedding from Eskom, South Africa is literally on its knees. The long-lasting pandemic of Covid-19 has now been replaced by a great plague of power outages.

For ordinary South Africans, it is dark days indeed as the economy shrinks, job prospects are nowhere in sight and the economic forecast rather bleak. Loadshedding costs are deadly for an economy in that has been in critical care well before Covid-19.

According to estimates from CSIR, as much as R120 billion could have been lost in 2019 due to loadshedding, and STATS SA reported in September 2022 that GDP had decreased by 0.7 percent in the 2nd quarter of this year. This decline is ascribed to the rolling power outages.

Spring is typically a time of fresh light, of new buds, and renewed life. But the Spring of 2022 in South Africa will be remembered as a season coloured not by the uplifting lilac of joyful flowering, but by the deep depression of darkness.

When I wrote more than a year ago that I believed that the New Dawn would be the darkest time in South Africa’s democracy, I anticipated that South Africa would be plunged into a bleak political era. I did not expect the darkness of rolling electricity blackouts. But in the end, these two are interlinked.

The rolling power blackouts bring to light an inconvenient and painful truth for some; that the Ramaphosa administration is failing. For those who once naively placed their faith in the New Dawn, they never thought there would be days like this.

In the unlit streets across the nation, hope for a better life is being snuffed out like a candle at its wicks end after a long night of loadshedding. Rage is being ignited. It is a righteous rage. And one that Ramaphosa witnessed first-hand when he campaigned in Soweto, in September 2021.

Faced with angry resident protesting against power outages and cut-offs, he promised them that their “electricity problems would be a thing of the past”.

But a year later, the electricity crisis is very much a daily reality. During a commemoration of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s birthday in Soweto, in September of this year, the very same President said, “Eskom is really killing us. And I am sure it is not treating you well at all at your homes, but it shall be well,” Ramaphosa once again reiterated that “we are busy trying to fix Eskom issues”.

For years now, Ramphosa’s promises have come to naught. Back in 2015, Cyril Ramaphosa, then the Deputy President of South Africa, promised that “in another 18 months to two years” loadshedding would be resolved.

For now, South Africa is caught in the never-ending story of rolling blackouts. And the often-repeated pipeline of excuses, scapegoating and gaslighting is fast losing its currency.

Previous CEO’s of Eskom, Brian Molefe and Matshela Koko, are often at the forefront of the government’s blame game. But these were the very men that kept the lights on. In the 1998 White Paper on Energy Generation there were warnings of future generation capacity problems. This blue-print for a more equitable energy system and provision, in democratic South Africa, was blue-ticked for too long by the government and Eskom, as were warnings of possible generation shortfalls.

But Molefe and Koko aptly addressed the issue of generation capacity by returning power stations, including Camden and Komati to service, refurbishing the Arnot power station, and building new coal-fired power stations Medupi and Kusile. Even before Medupi and Kusile, Eskom was able to meet the demand for electricity.

The removal of Molefe and Koko has seen things getting demonstratively worse. Loadshedding has literally become the emblem of the days of our lives in the New Dawn.

Last month, at the Good Governance Accountability Seminar, in Durban Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, spoke of the need for a proper diagnosis of what is wrong at Eskom. “If it is a matter of skills that is lacking,” Dr Dlamini Zuma said, “then we should be throwing expertise at Eskom. If it is maintenance- related, then we must identify the issues and fix it.”

Maintenance does not seem to be the monster problem it is deemed to be. According to Koko, there is adequate budget in place for maintenance and the 10 percent target has been surpassed. Poor management and poor managerial discipline seem to be at the heart of the poor performance.

The appointment of a new board has provided some with a glimmer of hope for some measure of recovery and stabilisation. But is it enough, and is Eskom headed on the right path?

The focus on renewables as a magic bullet may prove to be blindingly wrong. While attractive from a sustainable energy perspective, as a solution, in and of itself, it appears to be very limited. This has seen many leading economies return to coal or opt for nuclear energy.

Koko’s advice to the new Eskom Board is simple, embrace renewables but with the knowledge that it is not a reliable source from a grid perspective. The first order of business, Koko contends, must be to get the energy availability factor right. The energy availability factor (EAF) of 78 percent has fallen dramatically since his day, with power stations achieving well below this level. The new Eskom board has been tasked to achieve a 75 percent EAF.

It is all in the physics, Koko says. But even the best engine in the world, cannot be powered up, without people who are not up to measure and who lack the expertise on how the system works and lack knowledge on the precise engineering of the grid. The best formula in the world, and the most advanced mechanical and management tools all vest on a team fit for purpose.

That the current leadership at Eskom is clearly ill-equipped to master the problem is a glaring reality.

But those in power have taken an ‘eyes-wide-shut’ approach to the momentous failure of the incumbent team. Or more aptly, an ‘eyes-white-shut” position. White incompetence, even when omnipresent, is not easily shed. Koko points to the fact that over the course of 2017, 10 million litres of diesel were used. Today, the Eskom of De Ruyter is burning 50 million litres of diesel in a month.

Despite growing calls for the current CEO of Eskom, Andre De Ruyter to go, he has yet to be asked to pack his boxes and leave.

It is all very “Curiouser and curiouser”.

That the incompetence is sponsored and allowed to continue by the Ramaphosa administration borders on treason – an act against the nation.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.