Editorial: Eskom probe powerless

There is an excellent case to be made for a forensic inquiry that cuts through the political murk and corporate evasions at crisis-plagued Eskom. The public would like straight answers to many questions. Why, for example, are our power stations so unstable that South Africa suffers from a constant 30% generating shortfall? Why the recurring deadline and budget overruns on major build projects, including the Medupi and Kusile power stations, now years behind schedule? Why does Eskom pay a king’s ransom for coal and diesel?

Top management, constantly in flux, seems able only to react, with little evidence of planning or prognostic troubleshooting. And looming over all this is the utility’s growing dependence on government bailouts.

So why does last week’s announcement of an executive purge and forensic inquiry inspire no confidence? The inquiry, which will consider technical, commercial and financial aspects of Eskom’s business, has just three months to diagnose the complex ills of the crippled giant and lay the foundation for a turnaround. It is hard to believe that the sidelining of Tshediso Matona, chief executive for just six months, and other newly promoted executives can improve matters.

Of even greater concern is the fact that members of the board subcommittee running the process seem either compromised or lack the skills and background needed. The main qualification of the co-ordinator, Nick Linnell, seems to be that he advised SAA boss Dudu Myeni, a close ally of President Jacob Zuma, when she headed a water authority in KwaZulu-Natal. Subcommittee member and new acting chief executive Zethembe Khoza most recently ran a low-profile construction and plumbing business.

Driving the initiative is Zola Tsotsi, board chair since 2011 and the ultimate survivor, though it is on his watch that the utility has unravelled. His motive, one fears, will be to ensure that the inquiry makes no findings damaging to him.

At stake may be lucrative coal, diesel and IT contracts, as well as major new projects such as the proposed Ibhubesi gas deal. On this reading, the purpose is to assure ordinary South Africans (who go to the polls next year) that the power crisis is being decisively tackled while, however, leaving one faction intact and consolidating its power and access to patronage.

Eskom’s woes are, in no small measure, the result of political interference over many years. It is precisely this kind of manipulation that the inquiry should probe.

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