Darkness at noon as state capture turns the lights out
Vincent van Gogh once said: "I put my heart and soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process." He was an artist. Had he been a patriotic and honest South African politician now, he would probably say the same.
This country is in such trouble you sometimes just want to bury your head in your hands and weep. Today, as I write this, is Friday November 30, 20bloody18. Eskom has just announced it will implement stage 2 load-shedding nationwide.
If it did not do this, the power monopoly says, by implication, there is a real risk of the entire electricity grid going down. A national blackout.
We already knew that if there was one straw that could break our South African backs it would be Eskom. There's a lot going on, sure. Commissions of inquiry; unbelievable evidence from ANC ministers who either tolerated state capture or did not do enough to stop it when they had the power to try.
A fightback from the Gupta-funded looter wing of the ANC, including a former president. The meltdown of the EFF as the scale of its own chicanery in the collapse of VBS Mutual Bank becomes clearer. A weird contortion in the DA as it defends, needlessly, its very good chief whip for not having a degree and manages somehow to pour scorn on education generally.
But even if all of that was not happening, even if the government was strong and united and efficient and rational, even if the ANC were united and visionary, none of it would matter if Eskom cannot be fixed.
And the signs increasingly are that it indeed cannot be fixed. The reign of Jacob Zuma and the preening quislings he put in charge of public enterprises - Malusi Gigaba and Lynne Brown - and the financial debauchery of the chairman and boards the Guptas were able to install at Eskom have ruined it. We may have to come to terms with the fact that Eskom is done for. Finished. Kaput.
A new board installed after Zuma's departure from office earlier this year has been unable to staunch its wounds. They announced financial results last Wednesday. Debt service costs (basically, that's interest payments) alone doubled to R45bn in just one year. One slide put up at the results presentation warns: "Financially, Eskom is in a debt-reliant liquidity situation ." Yes, you'll want to read that again.
What they mean is that they are borrowing money to pay salaries. It's insane. Ask anyone who runs a business. "Operationally," said the same slide, "Eskom is facing reduced generation performance, low coal stock levels, and increases in municipal arrear debt." The only thing right on that slide is the Oxford comma.
The very next day, Thursday, load-shedding began. Stage 1. On Friday it got worse. This is the beginning of the holiday period. What will have been done by the time the country goes back to work in January?
The world's markets used to line up to buy Eskom's bonds. Now they're junk, a result directly attributable to Jacob Zuma and a party, the ANC, that inherited a world-class power utility and in 20 years "transformed" it into a monster with no money and no coal.
Sure, the ANC and all parties in the National Assembly have now put their names to an important report detailing the results of parliament's own investigation into Eskom. But it is late. They finger everyone the leaked Gupta e-mails fingered and whom many journalists had fingered even before the e-mails.
There might be some comfort in knowing the Molefes and Myenis and Duduzanes and Tsotsis and Ngubanes and Trillians will all end up before judge Ray Zondo's commission of inquiry into state capture, and eventually (for some) in prison. But evidence and proof and cross-examination aren't going to keep the lights on.
Only a functioning power generator can do that. And there's no point carrying on with the pretence that Eskom, as it is, can be turned around. It can't, not even with tariff increases. Eskom can't collect the tariffs it has now.
There's a case for putting Eskom into business rescue. Savage its nonessential costs and retain and improve engineering. Spin it off as a power generator and let it sell into a new state-controlled distribution company that owns and controls the grid. Invest in technology to more affordably link new renewable power to the grid, even from private homes.
And hurry. And don't get hung up about the sources of power. If it's got watts it should be welcome.