HILARY JOFFEE: At last, an Eskom light-bulb moment
Was the better-than-expected economic growth number in the third quarter a temporary bounce or the start of a recovery? There's certainly a lot to recover from. Growth over the past five years has averaged hardly more than 1%, well below the population growth rate of 1.6%-1.7%, so, on average, living standards in SA have gone sharply backwards.
Nor do the third-quarter growth figures indicate the economy is about to shoot the lights out any time soon. After two negative quarters, it bounced back with a 2.2% positive quarterly number — that is, comparing the third quarter with the second. Compare the first nine months of this year with the first nine months of last year, however, and growth was just 0.8%, indicating the full-year 2018 growth outcome will be below 1% and economists, sadly, are just quibbling about the decimal points.
Even the optimistic economists don't expect much more than 2% next year. But that assumes not only that volatile sectors such as agriculture don't turn negative again but also, crucially, that the much-needed investment and investor confidence that President Cyril Ramaphosa has been so avidly courting starts to come through.
The signs are not great: investment spending was again sharply negative in the third quarter and has now been in the red for 10 of the past 12 quarters.
And though Ramaphosa's recent investment conference may have elicited R290bn of promises, it's hard to see how any corporate board is going to give the go-ahead to start spending that money if SA can't guarantee a reliable supply of power. On one estimate, the many months of load-shedding in 2014/2015 shaved as much as one percentage point off the economic growth rate and the almost daily stage two load-shedding of recent weeks has been much more akin to the 2014/2015 episode than to the 2008 power crisis, which was brought under control quite quickly.
But Eskom now is in worse shape than it was a decade ago, and the risk of a total system crash is surely higher. Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan revealed at a hastily called media briefing this week that, because so much of the power station fleet has broken down, there is an "energy availability factor" far below 70%. None of the Eskom old hands can remember a time when it was this bad.
At least Gordhan and Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza have now responded to the threat posed by the operational crisis at Eskom, but it's taken them a while.
What was striking, too, about Gordhan's easy English explanation this week was that, by his own admission, this was all new knowledge. But the issues — maintenance, coal, diesel — are not new at all.
The same culprits have long been blamed, with a couple of additions such as the admission that the problem was not so much a lack of maintenance as maintenance poorly done, and the revelation that the new power station units are not producing the megawatts they should be (blame the suppliers).
Not that it's not all true. But Eskom has been hobbling along under these constraints for many years - and when the lights go out it's not a maintenance or a money problem: it's a management problem and one of leadership.
Gordhan and Mabuza are at last engaging with the complex realities of Eskom's ailing operations and promising to fix what's broken. They are hardly the first to give it a try, but if SA is to get growth and investment, we will have to hope they succeed.