In this crisis, Eskom's management is way too weak
Former president Jacob Zuma's intervention in the latest South African electricity crisis was, at least, momentarily funny. If we had done the R1-trillion Russian nuclear deal we wouldn't be load-shedding at stage 4, he told Business Day. He lives in a weird world, that guy. If we had done the Russian deal we would not yet even have dug a foundation. If we had done a Russian deal in 2017 we'd get our first volt from it 10 years later.
But for all of Zuma's nonsense, I watched an Eskom press conference the other day with a sinking feeling. Perhaps it was a department of public enterprises press conference. It was led by Pravin Gordhan, public enterprises minister and former finance minister and, in my view, a national treasure. Next to him sat Eskom chair, Jabu Mabuza, a leading light in the private sector doing national duty running the Eskom board. On the other side of him sat CEO Phakamani Hadebe, who didn't say much, and at the end, Jan Oberholzer the chief operating officer.
Oberholzer looks like an engineer out of Central Casting. A big guy, chiselled face and not many words. He has just been brought back to Eskom but when he was last there he was a distribution guy, not a generation guy. But he showed us a faint slide of a boiler and said there were 600km of tubing in each and when one ruptured you had to cool it down, go find the hole and fix it and then heat it up and test it and then bring it back into commission.
I enjoyed the lesson but it didn't really leave me with any hope. No-one on the panel was an expert in coal-fired generation. Surely Eskom has one they could show us?
It made me wonder whether or not, in its heart and discounting for the moment that under Zuma so much was looted from Eskom that should have gone into maintenance, Eskom's problems now are simply about leadership. Hadebe, to me, seems a reluctant general.
By far the surer bet, the guy who fixed Eskom's generating the first time it load-shed back in 2008, is Brian Dames. He knows every boiler and turbine in the Eskom fleet personally. He now works for Patrice Motsepe on a renewable energy project but surely if you asked Patrice he'd lend Dames to the country one more time.
The whole press conference was just unconvincing. Even with Gordhan there. Tough as he is he can't make electricity by sheer force of will. Malusi Gigaba, when he had the same job, used to announce that unit this or that at Medupi would come on stream by December 7 "at the latest". It never did but he was addicted to making a spectacle of himself.
In truth, Gordhan should not have been there at all but he is working with weak management and a weak board and he carries the can for what they do.
What he needs is a CEO he trusts who encourages the people around him to do their best and to get their jobs done and to give them the tools to do it. People should not be scared of making honest mistakes though I hope whoever is responsible for ordering Eskom's diesel has been put on long leave. What Gordhan and other ministers trying to clean up the state need to do is to take care not to let their distrust of the past infect their designs for the future.
Pick a fantastic manager to run Eskom and let him get on with it. Perhaps there are better bets than Dames out there but I don't know them.
What I do know is that the people I saw at the podium at the press conference are out of their depth. Most of us would be. This thing is too big.
When you ride a motorbike you learn to look where you want to go, not where you're actually going. At the moment we're transfixed by Eskom and racing towards it. We're not even looking at ways we might use all the embedded generating capacity in private industry and homes.
Eskom has still not looked at proposals to use the 2-billion tons of slurry in ponds at all of Eskom's coal mines as a source of coal briquettes, which could fire all of its coal stations for 20 years for a third of the price Eskom pays for coal. That arithmetic completely changes Eskom's broken balance sheet. Its own technicians have approved the technology. What would it take for Oberholzer to pick up a phone and ask them why?
Eskom's solutions lie inside Eskom.