by Hannes Wessels
South Africa is presently in the grip of a self-inflicted crisis as Eskom, the state-owned and managed monopoly charged with supplying the country’s electricity, appears to be drowning in debt and collapsing under the weight of rampant mismanagement and chronic corruption.
The president, who was Jacob Zuma’s vice-president for four years, says he’s ‘shocked’ by the recent blackouts which have taken him completely by surprise (just why he missed out on knowing what almost everybody else did is not clear); and Pravin Gordhan, the State Enterprises Minister, has only now discovered that the two huge coal-fired plants that have increased the debt to R440 billion (on which they are no longer able to pay even the interest) are badly designed and built and will fail to meet any of the expected outputs.
There’s plenty of finger-pointing going on; poor quality coal, poor maintenance, poor accounting, poor management, bad debts, over-staffing and the emergence of independent power suppliers. But the elephant in the room that few want to address is the fact that this catastrophe was driven by the politics of race and the voice of the few was long ago ignored simply because the people ringing the alarm bells happened to be of European ancestry.
In 2007, the trade union Solidarity revealed the results of a survey they did at Eskom among some 5,000 Europeans employed at the utility, most of whom were in skilled positions:
73% felt that Affirmative Action prevented them from pursuing their personal goals.
99% felt powerless to influence Eskom’s Affirmative Action policy.
95% felt that promotion was not based on merit.
93% felt that promotion was determined by Affirmative Action.
77% felt that there was no future for them.
Unsurprisingly, many left, some even committed suicide, such was their depression being witness to the wilful destruction of what had been so painstakingly constructed, but not enough went voluntarily. In March 2015, with the utility already floundering, the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport, reported that the government had increased the pressure for ‘affirmative action’ and ordered further employee reductions of 1,081 White engineers and 2,179 White artisans.
What few know and, I suspect, even fewer want to know, is that this is not the first time Eskom has been in crisis-mode but the last time serious challenges arose there were different personalities dealing with it who triggered a very different response.
In 1983 the much mocked and universally despised P W Botha was the president and, unlike his successors, he understood that in order to preside over a period of sustainable economic growth he had to be able to deliver affordable electricity and enough of it. He also knew that he didn’t know how to run power-stations so he reached out to people who did.
In May of that year Botha was in receipt of a report compiled by mining executive, W.J. de Villiers which had found fault with the corporation’s forecasting, governance, accounting and investment and this had caused a serious financial squeeze. Horror of horrors! They had also uncovered a fraud of R4 million. (Unlike today when thefts and frauds run into hundreds of millions, this brought a quick conviction and the head of finance was forced to resign for failing in his oversight role.)
The president acted immediately and wisely when he reached out to Dr. John Maree and asked him take over the board chairmanship. Maree was then a top-flight, former Barlows executive who responded positively to Botha’s request to serve despite the fact that he would have to accept a significant salary reduction as a civil-servant. Maree was of that increasingly rare breed that put the national interest ahead of his own. His wing-man, as Chief Executive was Dr. Ian McRae, soft-spoken and widely respected, a technical expert, he had started at the utility in 1947 as an artisan’s apprentice and worked his way up the ranks.
Maree moved fast to cut costs and streamline management while McRae, wanting to bring power to the poorest, championed the vision of ‘electricity for all’. “Eskom needed to be performing to the satisfaction of everyone in our country,” he said, “and that included making electricity available to all, not just one third of the population.”
Early in his tenure Maree had to make a decision on the Majuba power station, then using state of the art technology and one of the most expensive projects in the country’s history. Contrary to the views of many of his peers, he gave it the green light and for a while it looked like a major blunder as the country was over-supplied with electricity but then came the much hoped for economic growth and the country was perfectly poised to supply the power. Botha’s hopes had been realised and the country prospered. With these gentleman at the helm Eskom was turned into the biggest power utility in the world and one of the most efficient which drew experts from around the globe to learn from the systems, technology and operations that had been implemented and perfected.
Then came the advent of much celebrated democracy and a new dispensation under the ANC that called for Whites to be booted and replaced by Blacks, no matter the consequences, in the all-consuming name of ‘affirmative action’.
The rest is history and an entire economy may collapse as a result, bringing poverty and misery to millions. I say ‘may’; there appears to be a glimmer of hope. Minister Gordhan has just announced they are bringing in outside experts (at huge cost no doubt) to try and repair the damage. I’ll bet most of them are the Whites they so recently and so gleefully dispensed with. Unlike the previous government, this one is led by people who don’t know they don’t know … and the consequences are calamitous.