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‘Sunset clauses’ a key trigger for Eskom’s skills crisis

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – An early morning picture taken at Matla Power Station in Mpumalanga Province.

By Reuben Maleka

In 2007, failure to plan properly for increased electricity demand resulted in severe problems and near collapse of the national grid, triggering intermittent power outages that introduced the detested term “load shedding” into the lexicon of South Africa’s public discourse.

Eskom’s technical managers informed the government as far back as 1998 of the diminishing reserve capacity, and the need to plan for increased demand as a result of economic growth.

They requested the government to commit to a new build programme – a request that the government turned down.

Later in 2007, then president Thabo Mbeki apologised publicly for his government’s grave dereliction of responsibility, stating what had become obvious: “Eskom was right, government was wrong.”

Subsequently, two new, large coal-fired power plants were planned – Kusile and Medupi. In April 2010, Eskom received a loan of $3.75 billion (R62.9bn) from the World Bank. This was the first of such significant loans from the World Bank to South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa on July 25 acknowledged that South Africa was confronted by an energy crisis owing to Eskom’s dismal failure he, however, overlooked the wider challenge facing the country: an impending collapse of all critical services owing to a severe and rapid loss of skills.

Eskom’s capacity to provide adequate energy has been under discussion for some time, with no meaningful solutions being provided. South Africa continues to experience disabling load shedding that can be attributed to many well-known factors. These include failure to maintain infrastructure; system inefficiency; theft; corruption; sabotage; poor skills-development programmes; and the lack of succession planning. Ramaphosa acknowledged that one of the challenges facing Eskom was the shortage of skilled personnel and engineers.

The current state of disaster could have been prevented if this reality was not previously ignored. The Public Servants Association (PSA) acknowledges that the expansion and diversification of sources of electricity will assist Eskom. Cutting red tape will assist with procurement of maintenance spares and equipment. So should increasing the budget for critical maintenance. All these measures will, however, only bear fruit if supported by proper, skilled management of all operations. The recruitment of skilled personnel is thus a critical requirement.

The employment of former senior Eskom plant managers and engineers from the private sector, as mooted by Ramaphosa should, however, be tied with the programme to ensure skills transfer to ensure continuity in the entity.

Such services will come at a price, and it is crucial to broaden skills capacity in Eskom to ensure some return on this investment. This is especially critical, given the fact that Eskom has debt of some R400 billion. The PSA, however, cautions that any plans by National Treasury for a sustainable solution to Eskom’s debt should not be funded by the public servants’ pension savings.

Ramaphosa also referred to the role of large-scale sabotage, theft, and fraud in Eskom’s dire situation, which he rightfully described as a national crisis. Mention was further made of the SAPS setting up a special law enforcement team to help Eskom confront crime and corruption.

Recent reports that 1 300 detectives had left the SAPS over the past four years, give rise to serious concerns about skills levels and capacity and underline the PSA’s stance that the loss of skills in various sectors is gradually destroying the country.

So-called “sunset clauses” saw an exodus of officials in the previous regime from the public sector at huge cost to the fiscus for such packages. This left the public service depleted of skills, resulting in some of these officials returning as highly paid consultants. This scenario is but one of the factors that have contributed to the government’s “poverty” and inability to honour salary agreements with its employees, and leading to further instability owing to labour unrest.

The effect of the government’s blunder to shut down colleges that offered vital skills training and the lack of workplace skills training intervention through the Setas and colleges are slowly but surely – similar to the Eskom debacle – taking its toll. Prime examples are evident in the agriculture and education sectors.

The country is experiencing a huge skills shortage, leaving massive numbers of university graduates without practical skills and knowledge as unemployment continues to soar. South Africa is reeling under the compounded ripple effects of skills losses.

Urgent and immediate interventions are required to prevent a repeat of the Eskom nightmare. The PSA again called for active involvement by National Treasury to oversee Eskom’s revised procurement processes to prevent further corruption and subsequent costly investigations and belated corrective measures.

The PSA, while cautiously welcoming the long-overdue intervention and commitment by Ramaphosa to address the country’s energy supply crisis, warned the president to urgently address similar looming disasters and not again wait for more than a decade before “bold, courageous, and decisive action” is taken at great expense to rescue the country from collapse.

The president should further take another bold step and ban the sale of scrap metal in the country to eliminate the illegal market for power cables and copper, which destroys infrastructure at huge cost to the economy. These measures are crucial to spur economic growth and create jobs for desperate citizens.

Maleka is assistant general-manager for Collective Bargaining at the Public Servants’ Association