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Mr Gordhan, Eishkom isn’t a natural disaster



A few nights ago on news channel eNCA, I heard Eishkom chief operating officer Jan Oberholzer and board chairperson Jabu Mabuza, as well as Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan trying hard and failing miserably to explain the rolling power outages.

Oberholzer was the most lucid of the three, perhaps because he has the best technical expertise among them, explaining in his opening remarks that several decades of little to no maintenance of our ageing coal-fired power stations, got us to stage six load-shedding. That, coupled with inadequate investment in new infrastructure, created the energy volatility we are now experiencing.

He used the analogy of an ageing body: if you do not go for regular check-ups as you get older, you may miss an opportunity to identify early on and deal effectively with potentially serious or fatal illnesses that otherwise might only show symptoms later on. This is why preventive medicine isn’t a luxury but a prudent way of thinking about your overall wellbeing and longevity.

By implication, in the case of Eskom, no one gave a damn about regular check-ups, and now we have infrastructure that is barely fit for purpose.

Oberholzer didn’t say that his explanation is the full account of how we got here. So it was rather convenient for both Mabuza and Gordhan to refer back to his comments as if those were intended to be a total explanation of the hot mess we are in. The most obvious factor that Oberholzer wasn’t going to mention, both because this is trite and because he wouldn’t do so in front of his bosses when the communication strategy was to “calm” the nation, is corruption that has left our power utility unable to guarantee us a secure supply of electricity.

We cannot overlook that fact just because it is irritating for Gordhan to be reminded that it is under the criminally irresponsible ANC non-leadership that the power utility became a trough from which a network of corrupt politicians and business people feasted for at least a decade. It is under ANC non-leadership that infrastructure was not properly maintained and new-build programmes were grossly mismanaged. We did not get to the current crisis because of exogenous factors beyond human control. It is the actions and inactions of ANC politicians and people appointed by ANC political principals that got us to stage six load-shedding.

There is a profound lack of willingness by the ANC to take moral, economic, legal and political responsibility for the way in which political agency was executed over the past decade and longer.

And so, while nominally apologising to the nation, when it was his turn to speak to the cameras, Gordhan was quick to emphasise the unseasonably wet conditions that have led to flooding at at least one power station and wet coal all over the place. Essentially, the subtext was that Mother Nature is an unpredictable beast and she is a key reason we are in this mess.

That is bull. We have had wet coal giving us problems before. What lessons did this government learn then? What new contingency plans were devised, during dry times, for navigating inclement weather in the future? Gordhan seems shocked to discover that rain makes exposed coal wet. That is like a drinker expressing shock that many shots of tequila will make you drunk. It is condescending to tell us that freak weather patterns are a central reason we are in this crisis. The heavy rains do not help. That is true. But the rain isn’t an exculpatory factor when the dominant reasons for this situation are man-made rather than natural.

Mabuza, with his irritatingly uncool hat that is determined to defy a sense of urgency, also denied there is leadership failure at present. When eNCA’s reporter, Samkele Maseko, asked him whether he at least conceded that there are design flaws if a power station can be flooded and rendered useless, he simply extended the meaning of success to include the failure to own and operate infrastructure that can perform even when there is heavy rain.

If Eskom isn’t an exemplary case of “failure”, then nothing can count as an unambiguous example of leadership failure. Not to be outdone with this abuse of language by Mabuza, Gordhan also decided to redefine a word, this time the word “crisis”. When asked whether we are experiencing a crisis, Gordhan declined an unqualified “yes” answer, opting for the Orwellian invention of a “manageable crisis”. If this crisis is “manageable” why, under his political leadership, is he managing the crisis to stage six load-shedding? Of course we are experiencing a national crisis and no degree of verbal dexterity can get the politicians out of this one.

The crisis has been ongoing and will get worse. There is little chance of us avoiding a recession. The consequence of this energy insecurity will almost certainly be a worsening in employment levels as major companies are pushed to cut back their use of electricity and therefore reduce their productivity levels, which can only mean pressure on the cost curves, and therefore retrenchments following suit. If this crisis is “manageable”, Minister Gordhan, can you tell us what you will do for the workers that are about to lose their jobs as a direct result of the blackouts?

Can you tell the millions of South Africans reliant on social security grants what will happen if there is increased fiscal pressure on the government as a result of an already thin tax base eroding further when companies cut back their operations (thereby making less profit and owing the South African Revenue Service less in turn) and retrenched people becoming indigent citizens that the tax agency cannot go after? How is this “manageable” Minister Gordhan? How is it not an unqualified national crisis?

Beyond these economic disasters, I worry what the deeper implications for our democracy will be. A healthy democracy is one that can only sustain itself on the backs of people who have a stake in society, people who are living reasonably well even if they are not all fully flourishing. If our economy tanks entirely, courtesy of Eishkom, then the effect will not just be heart-breaking in terms of daily frustrations for each one of us, but at a systemic level the foundations of our democracy will be damaged.

Populism takes root when there are scarce resources or when millions of people are indigent, or feel hopeless about their prospects to live well. Under such conditions, anarchist ideologies, such as those of the Economic Freedom Fighters, feel like they capture one’s sense of being gatvol. The proverbial centre cannot hold in this context, and views at the extremes of our discourse meet a demand they did not even create or expect. That isn’t necessarily a threat to formal democracy but the deeper values of a liberal democratic society that is reason-bound can be threatened.

Our democracy is founded on some demanding normative principles. Not only did we set out to create a society in which the ideals of deliberation and participation are held in high constitutional regard, but we also codified citizens’ entitlement to the nuts and bolts — civil liberties and socioeconomic rights — that are required for us to rehearse a democracy based on deliberative and participatory ideals.

The dark Eishkom truth is that no one can live up to these ideals if the lights are off. It is that elementary. And that is why Gordhan’s penchant to condescend to reporters who ask him tough questions is unacceptable. We can either pretend all is well or we can confront the brutal reality of a country slowly sliding towards the kind of crisis that we assumed only Zimbabwe is capable of having. 

We must stop believing that we are exceptional. We shouldn’t panic, just yet, but we certainly should ask an uncomfortable question we arrogantly refuse to ask: “How did Zimbabwe become a basket case after the promise of liberation?” It is time to go there — met Eish(kom), ja.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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