YOU have to be living in a different country, or with your head entirely buried under the sand, not to notice the growing levels of frustration with developments at South Africa’s national power utility.
If there is any brand that unites South Africans at the moment, irrespective of geographic background and income status, it has to be Eskom. This is because it’s found in their homes, on their way to and from work and at their places of work and leisure – and its impact on their lives is inescapable.
Those who still do not have it in their homes need it desperately, and those who already have it are sick and tired of its failure to live up to its brand promise. Eskom is doing an excellent job of uniting South Africans in opposition to it.
When asked in the early 1990s by Ian McRae, Eskom’s then CEO, what his government would do with the power utility after taking office, the late former president Nelson Mandela is reported to have responded: “Nothing, as long as you continue to produce cheap electricity and connect more black South Africans to the grid.
“We do not wish to interfere with what you are doing and how you are doing it because you know the electricity business. We don’t.” Of course, Mandela would not have meant that Eskom would be spared from the transformation agenda that would sweep through the country.
But it’s safe to imagine he would have meant that whatever his government would do, if anything, it would be to ensure that government plays its part in enabling the sharing of the electricity pie with more South Africans, notably black South Africans, who had been excluded from enjoying light in their homes and residential areas.
Now, more than 20 years after that conversation over lunch, we are where we are because successive post-apartheid governments did not heed expert advice and have consequently failed dismally to plan ahead.
The Mbeki administration was in a hurry to invest in a multi-billion rand upgrade of the country’s military arsenal at a time when much of the world was still in party mood vis-à-vis South Africa, celebrating the rainbow nation and still euphoric over the ‘hard-not-to-love Nelson Mandela’. They were excited about the relatively peaceful transition from the racist apartheid system into the new era.
Frankly, it is inconceivable that any nation would have been trying to figure out how to launch a military attack on South Africa at that time in its history. Our victory over apartheid was seen the world over as a victory of humanity over a truly evil system.
But instead of appreciating reports that were prepared and presented to it, stating the need to invest in the maintenance of existing power stations and new build for additional power generation, the post-Mandela government ignored those reports and in so doing put South Africa at risk – the risk we’re in today.
Now we sit with mass labour dependent industries frustrated by the outcome of this government indecision. Rating agencies are having a field day at our expense, having downgraded Eskom’s credit rating yet again.
Yet, over the past year alone, Eskom’s top executives have raked in millions of rands in salaries and incentive bonuses while instead of generating revenue for government, the power utility they’re paid to manage has become a bottomless pit wasting taxpayer funds.
The same executives are now sitting at home on fully-paid suspension while the recently formed and aptly named ‘war room’ is conspicuous in its silence.
All of these developments do not send the right message to potential investors about our capability as a nation. What they do achieve is to further embolden South Africa pessimists sitting in the country and elsewhere in the world – for there are hordes of them – waiting for something to make them feel good about their negativity towards the country and the people who lead it.
This is a gift on a silver platter for them. Once a proud national brand with much promise, Eskom is now increasingly putting South Africans on the defensive, often forcing us to defend the indefensible in the name of patriotism.
What will it really take to make our once award-winning ‘Power Company of the Year’ (Financial Times Global Energy Awards, New York – 2001) regain its lustre and our belief in it?