/ 11 June 2022

Eskom caught in a web of dysfunctionality

Lekwaeskom Power Electricity 5995 Dv
The National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) says when it approved Eskom’s electricity tariff increases of 18.65% for 2023 and 12.74% for 2024, it considered the plight of the poor. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

“Eskom” must be one of the most hated names in South Africa, a reputation that has only been entrenched after another run of load-shedding in May and indications of more to come as winter deepens. 

But a closer look at May’s online news shows that our power crisis is not the work of one culprit but a web of misdeeds and dysfunctionality that will take strong political will to disentangle. This is shown in an analysis of the words most strongly associated with Eskom in a database of 94 of May’s online news articles from News24 and TimesLive

The word with the strongest association with Eskom in May’s news is “owe”, not referring to Eskom’s debt but those of municipalities that owe Eskom. “Municipalities” is another word strongly associated with the utility’s name. 

In May, Eskom was in the constitutional court asking for leave to appeal against a high court judgment stating that the utility may not limit the amount of electricity it supplies to two municipalities that together owe Eskom almost R3-billion. These are Ngwathe local municipality in Parys, Free State, and Lekwa local municipality in Standerton, Mpumalanga. 

Ratepayers’ associations from these two areas successfully argued in the high court that residents should not be punished for the dysfunctionality of their municipalities by having their electricity limited. They used the phrase “human catastrophe” to describe the consequences of Eskom’s rationing of power. 

People from similarly broken municipalities all over the country would sympathise. In Makhanda, Eastern Cape, where I live, our municipality is in breach of a court order that it keep paying Eskom on time

In this case, municipalities are the true villains — residents and businesses (well, many of them) pay the municipalities, Eskom supplies the electricity, but the municipalities fail to pay Eskom month after month. 

Richard Gaybba, the chairperson of the Grahamstown Business Forum, which is one of the litigants in Makhanda’s Eskom court case, has stated it starkly: “We understand that nearly every municipality in the country has used Eskom as an overdraft facility.” 

When will the government, at all levels, stop misspending funds and starving Eskom of the money it needs to keep running? 

The word “supplier”, which had the second-strongest association with Eskom in May’s news, speaks of another web of misdeeds crippling the utility. It has emerged that Eskom’s chief executive, André de Ruyter, threatened to resign only three months after being appointed over a dispute with Eskom board member Sifiso Dabengwa. 

Dabengwa objected to the cancellation of Eskom’s contract with Econ Oil, a previous supplier of fuel oil that was overpaid by R1-billion. The utility is now trying to recover the money. 

Eskom’s chief operating officer ,Jan Oberholzer, and De Ruyter’s name were associated strongly with Eskom in May’s news, at third and fourth place, respectively. A loud and clear take-away point from the messages they have recently been sending out is that South Africa needs to add energy generation capacity to Eskom’s existing fleet of power stations, and fast. 

Oberholzer said on Wednesday, 11 May, that we need 50 000 megawatts of new power-generating capacity in the next 13 years. At the moment, Eskom’s whole fleet amounts to 45 000MW. Meanwhile, plans to build more capacity are moving at a snail’s pace. An emergency round of procurement for power-generating capacity started in 2019 has still not been concluded. In other words, the government and business need to pull out all the stops to add new power stations to the grid. 

All of this means that the recent physical acts of sabotage at Eskom power stations — which caused “acts” to feature as the word with the fifth-strongest association with Eskom — just add insult to injury. This sabotage is now so brazen that there is “no attempt to disguise” it. The perpetrators, who clearly have insider knowledge of how the power stations operate, are not only sabotaging Eskom but also the country’s wellbeing, sending us up to higher load-shedding stages.

I could continue listing further sources of Eskom’s woes, but I’m sure that by now the picture is clear. Eskom is in its current state not only because of its own faults but also because of gigantic failures of competence and morality in local governments, corrupt businesses and employees. When you boil it down to basics, these people are willing to damage our economy and the wellbeing of their fellow South Africans for the sake of self-enrichment. 

But rather than blaming it all on “them”, maybe this should be cause for introspection. How did this web of corruption come to extend so far across South African society? How can we start a revolution of ethical behaviour to dismantle it?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.