The contribution that Eskom’s rolling powercuts might have made towards the decline in the ANC’s support at this year’s local government elections has given Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordan’s detractors leverage to call for his removal.
Some within the ruling party’s national executive committee (NEC), aligned to the fractured radical economic transformation (RET) faction, say there is growing pressure for President Cyril Ramaphosa to act against one of his most seasoned allies in his cabinet.
This comes after the ANC performed dismally in the 1 November vote, getting just 45.6% 4of the ballots, although it managed to regain control of two of the country’s eight metros.
ANC members who are gunning for Gordhan have apportioned some of the blame for the low performance of the party to the power utility’s load-shedding.
While the RET faction has made it clear that it will call for Gordhan to be removed when the NEC conducts its post-mortem of the elections, some in the Ramaphosa faction say the president needs to urgently look at moving the beleaguered state-owned enterprise from Gordhan’s portfolio to that of Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe.
During a special NEC meeting held on Sunday, deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte reportedly pointed to the negative effect that Eskom had in the ANC’s campaign.
One NEC member who was present during the meeting said the top officials indicated their dissatisfaction with the power utility. Gordhan was apparently not at the NEC meeting.
One NEC member said that Gordhan must be held responsible as he had not informed the ANC’s top brass of a pending new round of blackouts in time as they were campaigning for the elections.
“We were caught unaware. The problem was compounded by the fact that our very own NEC member who sits as a political head of this state enterprise said nothing until he was probed by the DSG (Duarte). It’s something that we need to look at closely,” one NEC member said.
An ally of Ramaphosa in the NEC said that there must be some evaluation on the pace of Eskom’s turnaround strategy.
On 27 October, a few days before the vote, Gordhan held a media briefing informing the public that he had instructed the Eskom board to beef up the power utility with the requisite expertise to deal with generation capacity.
“As South Africans go to the polls … and as the counting of votes proceeds and over the next few days there would be no load-shedding unless there are unexpected events which I am assured by the board is an unlikely event,” he said.
This was not meant to be. On 2 November, as the electoral commission of South Africa was counting votes, Eskom implemented stage two load shedding due to power constraints.
On 5 November Eskom moved to stage four load shedding to preserve its remaining fuel after generation units at its Kanndall, Tatuka and Matimba power stations shut down. The company also warned of more power cuts for the next 10 months to the end of August 2022 as it continued its maintenance programme for its generation fleet that has shown a deterioration.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday, ANC head of elections Fikile Mbalula said Eskom had contributed to the negative mood in the country and to an anti-ANC sentiment.
“It did affect us because it happened right in the middle of the campaign and we had to explain ourselves. It’s not like something that happened a long time ago,” he said.
While Mbalula did not attribute all the blame for the ANC’s performance to load-shedding, he said the party’s supporters were demoralised from going out to vote when Eskom implemented stage four load shedding just days before the election.
“It killed us heavily. It killed us over and above the negative mood. It became a topical issue. About three days before the elections we were hit with stage four,” he said.
Mbalula however conceded that some of the negative sentiment that worked against the ANC stemmed from power outages and water shortages unrelated to the rolling blackouts.
He said Ramaphosa had received a nasty welcome from the people of Nomzamo in Soweto township who have been without electricity for three years. The ANC was also given the middle finger by the Daveyton community when water ran out just three days before the elections.
“The numbers dropped heavily and the mood was not right. We fought hard to change it, in certain instances we did succeed but space and time did not allow it, it was too late. The Eskom challenge added to a negative mood,” Mbalula said, adding however that to suggest, as some in the party had done, that the utility effectively “became an opposition” was a mischaracterisation.
“We will take a deep dive in our support, it’s clear that we wanted 10-million people out, we did not, we got half of that so it tells you a story already,” he said.
Another NEC member said the debate around the collapse of public enterprises must be put back on the table.