How to save Eskom: run it for the people, not for the cronies
The meltdown at Eskom is a case study, if long-suffering South Africans should ever need another one, in how the ANC government destroyed an institution that was once a world leader in its field: the generation of electric power from coal.
In technical terms, the production of Eskom power is little more complicated than feeding great quantities of coal into a burner, and burning it to produce steam to drive a turbine that spins a generator to crank out power.
But the ANC, which is expert at power of the political variety, has taken what should have been a relatively straightforward project and turned it into a nightmare for itself as a governing party facing tough elections in May.
In the gathering gloom that is present-day SA, the milestones on Eskom's road to oblivion are manifold and clear. They include: the malaise of cadre deployment (if ANC politicians are all-knowing, as they lead us to believe, why would generating electricity be beyond their ken?); corruption at Eskom, as highlighted in several official reports and in the Sunday Times over the past few years; state capture as facilitated by the administration of former president Jacob Zuma, with foot soldiers like Brian Molefe doing the actual dirty work on behalf of the immigrant Guptas; ill-executed big-contract projects in the form of the disasters that are Kusile and Medupi, where much of the strife arose from the collaboration between the ANC's investment arm, Chancellor House, and its sweetheart partner, Hitachi Africa; hostile unions that did their best to delay the new power stations and are now hard at work sabotaging Eskom's own belated recovery efforts (if the ANC itself, which has made the accusation, is to be believed); legislative and policy confusion around green power; and a refusal to tackle head-on the culture of nonpayment among its own supporters, which sees Eskom doling out electricity without a chance of recovering any of the costs.
Last, but not least, were policies that drove out white engineering skills, motivated by a political insistence that cadres were patently better equipped to handle detailed technical matters than a person trained specifically to do just that.
The obvious solution to the problems at Eskom is something along the lines President Cyril Ramaphosa is now proposing: splitting the behemoth into three parts - generation, transmission and distribution.
The big question, though, is whether the government, and Ramaphosa specifically, will bite the proverbial bullet and hand the enterprise (or at least the more workable parts of it) over to free enterprise. In other words, privatisation. The unions are dead set against privatisation, interpreting any such move as an assault on their livelihoods and their future prospects. Eskom, and by implication the taxpayer, must bear the pain of shelling out even more money to ensure workers alone do not bear the brunt of the pain that must inevitably accompany the big shake-out.
The government itself should urgently reorient its efforts away from cronies and other state capturers and understand that, regardless of its own ideological proclivities, Eskom exists to power SA, and not to enrich mates in the public sector and unions.
For the ANC government, privatisation might mean ridding itself of its socialist-inclined notions of how an economy must work, but it is a step it will have to take. Failing that, expect ratings downgrades, power blackouts for years to come and the wastage of yet more public money.
If even the president was shocked and angered at Eskom moving to stage four load-shedding this week, how, you wonder, must the average South African have felt at receiving this awful news on a Monday morning?
Eskom must be re-engineered with one person in mind, and that's not Ramaphosa or public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan. It is you, the average South African.
Either we have a power utility run for all of SA, or a bankrupt jobs-for-pals racket run from Luthuli House. Given the state we're in, this should not be a difficult choice.