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The ripple effects of Eskom challenges on political stability

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Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA) – Cosatu members at Cosatu’s 14th elective congress at Gallagher Convention Centre, Midrand, Gauteng, on September 28, 2022. Cosatu members booed Gwede Mantashe and prevented him from delivering a message from the ANC, perhaps showing that workers are placing their financial situation before their political interests, the writer says.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

Recent developments in South Africa have put to bare the convergence between the country’s economic situation and political (in)stability. They have also prompted focus and militancy within the labour movement.

Eskom’s challenges are undoubtedly at the centre of this reconfiguration of relations among different stakeholders – including the labour movement. The situation has been simmering for some time.

Firstly, the African National Congress (ANC) was unable to pay salaries to its employees. This culminated in many of these employees staging protest marches at the ANC’s offices in different provinces demanding their salaries, which the ANC was unable to pay. This strained relations between the ANC and its employees.

While our eyes were glued on this unprecedented development in the history of the ANC, there were reports of late payments of employees’ salaries in Tshwane. Surely, this was attributed to a technical glitch, a fact which cannot be refuted. But the reality is that many employees – both in the public and private sectors have seen their salaries slashed, delayed or not paid at all. This has become a cause for concern with a potential to destabilise the country.

Looking at this issue at a macro level, a few observations come to mind. Intermittent power cuts by Eskom have had a ripple effect. Prospective investors have to think twice before signing any deal to open businesses in South Africa. Those who are already conducting business in the country are forced to weigh their options and to decide whether they still want to remain in South Africa or relocate elsewhere. Worse still, others are prepared to remain but cannot afford to pay their employees full salaries and on time while they are not making profit due to their businesses being forced to stop operations each time there is load shedding.

This synopsis paints a bad picture about the country’s prospects for economic growth. In the same vain, the situation points to a prospect for a rebellion, not just against employers but even against the state. The state would be difficult to shield because it is mandated to promulgate legislation meant to ensure that the country remains economically and politically stable. As Eskom’s woes continue, eyes turn on government which is blamed for not doing enough to contain the situation.

One alternative has been for companies to buy generators so that they could continue to operate in the absence of electricity and keep good relations with their employees. At face value, this sounds simple and logical. However, the reality is that this option too is deemed not viable due to constantly increasing diesel and petrol prices. As a result, there has been frustration on all fronts while the electricity challenges continue unabated.

What transpired at COSATU’s recent congress is a sign of things to come and a reflection of a more focused and militant labour movement which does not want to be fixated in the “Tripartite Alliance” narrative. As has been conventional practice, the ANC’s National Chairperson, Gwede Mantashe arrived at the congress to deliver the ANC’s message of support. To his surprise, he was booed and refused permission to address the workers, not once, but twice in two days! This incident took many by surprise.

Different conclusions could be drawn from this. One conclusion is that the labour movement is becoming more militant and is able to act independently from the ANC. The second conclusion is that workers are placing their financial situation before their political interests.

The third conclusion is that union members are refocusing their agenda to address workers’ needs before entering into any form of political arrangement with the ANC through the Tripartite Alliance. The fourth conclusion is that workers are setting a new trend whereby they will not hesitate to old their political friends accountable. The fifth and most important conclusion is that the labour movement feels neglected by the political leadership to the extent that they might even end relations with their fellow political friends. This would have serious implications for the ANC and the country in general.

One can gauge pointers to the last conclusion above when doing a cogent analysis of some of the statements made by COSATU members. For example, when some delegates were asked if they have an issue with Mantashe as a person or in his capacity as ANC National Chairperson, they made it clear that this is not the case.

Expounding this stance, they stated that they would have done the same to anyone from the ANC – including President Cyril Ramaphosa. This says a mouthful. It questions the sustainability of the Tripartite Alliance going forward.

The main concern raised by workers is that the ANC has left them in the lurch. They argue that it is illogical for their employers to either put a three percent salary increase offer on the table or no increase at all while everything has gone up. For that, they blame the ANC-led government for neglecting the country’s workers. Secondly, workers are of the view that the ANC leadership has failed to deliver on the mandate that was given to it at the 2017 national conference. They feel that they have been taken for a ride by their comrades, hence their decision not to allow the ANC to address them.

Another very important development at the COSATU congress was yet another threat made by the SACP that it might consider contesting the 2024 general election alone as opposed to supporting the ANC. Of course, this is not a new call as the SACP has made a similar statement on several occasions. But what makes this year’s threat more serious is the fact that even COSATU has expressed anger against the ANC. Should the SACP and COSATU decide to join hands and vote together, this would mean the end of the Tripartite Alliance which comprises the ANC, COSATU and SACP. Importantly, it would mark the demise of the ANC.

Such a development could have serious implications for the country’s political stability.

Although it is true that the ANC is not perfect, it is equally true that it remains the only organisation with governance experience at national level. Should the ANC lose power due to sour relations with a revamped COSATU, the country would turn a new page in its political life – marked with uncertainties.

Given all the developments highlighted above, one can look at them at a micro level and try to find answers there as to why these things have happened. While this cannot be summarily dismissed as a possible approach, the reality is that such a move would be a simplistic approach to a more serious challenge and would undoubtedly miss the bigger picture.

The best option would be to ventilate these issues at a macro level and consider their implications for political stability in the country. It is this approach that would be more useful.

Over the years, the ANC’s popularity has dwindled somewhat. This can be evidenced in the results in each election. Fortunately for the ANC, the opposition political parties have also been in disarray and have failed to capitalise on the ANC’s failures. Consequently, despite its many mistakes, the ANC has still managed to emerge victorious in each general election, albeit with reduced numbers.

But, if the 2019 general election and the 2021 Local Government Election (LGE) results are anything to go by, then the ANC has a reason to be concerned. It is true that coalition governments are unsustainable. However, they have temporarily succeeded in taking power away from the ANC. As political parties prepare for the 2024 general election, coalitions are part of that planning process.

One point that is worth reiterating is that politics and economy always work in tandem.

Whenever there is political instability, it leads to economic chaos. Similarly, when a country is in economic distress, the ripple effect is political instability. So, the sooner South Africa’s political leadership understands this reality, the better.

A couple of things have compounded the Eskom problem. The first one is that under apartheid, electricity supply was reserved for the white minority. The black majority were deliberately excluded. With the advent of democracy, there was a conscious decision to expand electricity supply. Unfortunately, infrastructure investment and skills expansion did not receive adequate attention. Sooner or later, Eskom was bound to fail.

Secondly, those who are close to the situation have been economical with the truth. At one point, they promised that once the two plants in Medupi (Limpopo) and Kusile (Mpumalanga) were completed, the country would be out of the woods. Conversely, the situation got worse. When it rains, the justification for load shedding is said to be wet coal.

Engine failures, diesel shortages and sabotage are cited as some of the causes.

As a way out, the country needs truthful leaders. Secondly, people with requisite skills must be employed at Eskom and deserving individuals must be appointed into Eskom’s board.

Unless Eskom’s challenges are addressed, South Africa will descend into political turmoil.

Mngomezulu is Professor of Political Science and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape.

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