Jan Oberholzer: ‘When the Lord handed out patience, I didn’t...


Jan Oberholzer: ‘When the Lord handed out patience, I didn’t get the memo’

He is Eskom's COO. A super-operator. The man who must try to understand what's going on every time another boiler packs up or another potential act of sabotage leaves a power station out of service. ANNELIESE BURGESS spoke to this self-proclaimed ‘bliksem’ about the corruption at Eskom, the cut-and-paste legacy that has turned his hair so grey, and whether he has a generator at home (the answer is yes).


THERE are problems at Koeberg. And this means Jan Oberholzer is in the Cape.

When something breaks — and Eskom breaks frequently (later, he explains extensively why) — it's the big man with the grey head who has to go check it out.

“If there are issues at a power station, I have to run there. If there's a problem in transmission, I have to go there. There aren't enough people in Eskom any more who understand the entire operation."

No blah-blah

With the problem at Koeberg, it happens that Oberholzer stays overnight at his vacation home in the Overberg for the first time this year (it saves Eskom accommodation expenses). And I am at my home in Pringle Bay (it saves Vrye Weekblad accommodation expenses). Which is  how I arranged for Eskom's COO to sit in front of my fireplace for an interview.

He has a no-nonsense style. He calls it as he sees it. As a journalist, I am so used to the predictable blah-blah-blah of politicians and corporate bigwigs who have mastered the art of speaking without saying anything, that Oberholzer's style quite impressed me. “Pleasantly surprised" would be an understatement.

It is precisely this direct style that gets him into trouble (not that it bothers him in the least). And, if I may dare to say, it is also what lies behind the eight internal investigations (apparently, another one is on the way) that Oberholzer had to go through, and where he was found innocent every time.

“Yes, I'm a ‘bliksem'. When the Good Lord handed out patience, I didn't get the memo," he says candidly about how he sometimes rubs people the wrong way. Especially if they have something to hide or don't realise the seriousness of a matter.

Jan Oberholzer.
Jan Oberholzer.

Stage 6

We are talking at a difficult time for South Africa. Load-shedding has escalated to stage 6. People are fed up. And angry. At the government. At him. At André de Ruyter. Why isn't it getting better at Eskom? Surely, people are justified in expecting that?

“You know, André and I — especially me — I have no problem with people asking me if I  accept responsibility for Eskom's operations. Of course I'm accountable. Am I trying my best? Damn right I'm trying my best, yes. But SA Inc needs to collaborate," he says, squinting as he gazes out of the window at Hangklip slowly disappearing under a big cloud.

“Can those of us at Eskom make a big contribution? Absolutely. But the restraints need to be taken off. Like those idiotic procurement processes. You know, that Piet-has-a-bakkie-so-let's-put-him-in-charge way of doing things.

“You can't use the guy who built the things and whose components he manufactured. You have to go out and see who's the cheapest, and that usually comes from a place where the quality isn't what it should be.

“A power station is a Mercedes-Benz. The Merc manufacturer says you have to change the filter every so many kilometres, and please have it done at a Mercedes garage because they have trained mechanics authorised to work on your car. But no, you decide to go to a backyard mechanic. And that one uses Tata parts because they're cheaper…"

Oberholzer laughs. “I said that on the radio the other day, and when I got back the head of Tata in India wanted to know what's wrong with his parts?

“Jeez, I had to explain carefully. It was just an example, nothing to do with Tata's quality. But do you understand? That's what we've done with our systems. Power stations are highly sophisticated technology. You have to service them on time, just like a car you want to keep. You can't just spit and glue and weld. You can't use the cheap mechanic."

Oberholzer receives an updated Eskom status report every hour, 24 hours a day. During our interview, he checks it on his phone.
Oberholzer receives an updated Eskom status report every hour, 24 hours a day. During our interview, he checks it on his phone.

It can still get worse

Our power stations are neglected, says Oberholzer. “Among other things because we spent so much money building Medupi, Kusile and Ingula. And we're only talking about power stations…"

The pressure on Eskom during the 2010 World Cup also caused long-term damage, he says. “It was a time of electricity at all costs, and it led to load-shedding because we then created virtual capacity.

Oberholzer likes a car analogy.

“Your foot is constantly flat on the accelerator. And remember, this is already an old car. And you just add petrol and water, and maybe you pump the tyres. At some point, that car will break down. And that's where we are now.

“There's an important term here. Energy utilisation. It refers to how hard you push your system. The international benchmark for power stations of the same age as ours is between 65% and 70%. Our utilisation stands at 92%."

He gazes out of the window before gesturing again with his large hands.

“What we forget is that we also have a transmission and distribution network that needs to be maintained. And that's actually where my major concern lies now. I'm giving intense attention to it. Load-shedding is painful, but if you lose an important transmission line, millions of people could be without power for days.

“As for work challenges, I like them. I thrive on it. I enjoy it tremendously. But what I don't enjoy is the politics. And people who can't see the problem and understand the solutions. But the politics, especially that, makes me very uncomfortable."

R400bn in debt

That the way we generate power must change radically is beyond question, says Oberholzer.

“Eskom doesn't have money — we have R400bn in debt. We simply don't have the capital to build additional power stations. And that's why André and I have promoted the use of independent energy providers from the beginning."

But wind and solar power also have their challenges.

“The sun shines during the day, and most of the time we actually have enough capacity when the sun is shining. The challenges come during peaks — in the mornings when everyone is cooking and using appliances, and in the evenings when everyone is back at home.

“And then the sun doesn't shine, and sometimes the wind doesn't blow either. So you have to store the electrons somewhere for when you need them. We have just awarded our first tender to the South Koreans and Chinese for battery storage capacity. By the middle of next year, we will be able to start storing renewable energy."

But the coal guys tell me  this technology is not good enough yet, I say.

“No, it's fine," says Oberholzer. “Can it be improved? Of course, with time. But is it already usable? Yes. Then there are also the pump schemes where you have a dam on top of a mountain and one below. When you need power, you let the water flow down to the lower dam and generate power like that, and at night when you don't need power, you use it to pump the water back up. We already have three but we are looking at two more."

Oberholzer says the mistake Eskom must not make again is ignoring the future. Being caught up in the crisis of the moment. It was this short-sightedness that contributed to the overwhelming mess in which the country finds itself.

“In 1998, we already started saying we're running out of power," says Oberholzer. “And 24 years later, we're still singing the same old tune.

“We have to deal with this crisis now, yes, but we also have to think about what we'll need in 20, 30, 50 years. Because in the next 13 years, nine of our power stations will close. Then they'll be worn out.

“People forget that Eskom is just implementing policies. The Department of Minerals and Energy is the policymaker. They are the ones who say build this, do that. If we want to build a power station, or a solar panel system, or a wind farm, or whatever it may be, we have to seek and obtain permission from the department.

“But the tremendous pressure is also leading to better collaboration; there is now greater willingness within the department to help us get projects off the ground."

Jan the man

Jan is undeniably an “Eskom man". It's something I've seen in many old-timers. A tremendous loyalty to an institution that has been recognised as the world's best electricity provider twice in the past.

He grew up within Eskom.

“My father was a lineman for 25 years. Those wooden poles in the countryside, my father built them. I used to go with him on weekends and watch him work. And in those days, Eskom gave bursaries to their children as a long-service recognition, and that's how I ended up studying electrical engineering at Tuks."

In 2008, after 26 years at Eskom, Oberholzer packed his bags and left. It was an unsavoury business that left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Afterwards, he was a contractor for Stefanutti Stocks for four years, started his own business, worked for a Norwegian power company and spent two years in Zambia. And then, after 10 years, Eskom asked him to come back.

The organisation he returned to was unrecognisable.

“There are a few things that brought Eskom to its knees. The first is transformation. And when I say this, I don't mean there's anything wrong with transformation, not at all. But you must surely understand what the outcome of transformation should be and apply it in a way that maintains or improves certain standards. Transformation cannot just be about getting rid of all experienced and skilled people. You must think about what it will mean.

“Understand what I am saying. I am not anti-transformation. Please do not misinterpret my words as people so often do. I am pro-transformation; the potential and talent are there. But I think back to how I grew up within Eskom. As a trainee engineer, I was sent from place to place for two years to learn about the organisation from the inside.

“A damn apprentice taught me what to do. I dug holes with my hands, with a pick and a shovel. No one can ask me today how long it takes to dig a hole because I know. I had to learn the ladder step by step. I always had a mentor and a coach to tell me: now do it this way, or are you f****n stupid, you don't do it like that.

“And during that time, Eskom had a pipeline. I can't think that there were ever external appointments. If there was a position, there were five people to choose from and each one could do the job. During the past decade or two, there have been several external appointments, individuals who lack the expertise and experience you gain within the organisation when you have to climb those steps. Furthermore, there was a period where only internal appointments were allowed, resulting in inexperienced colleagues being appointed to positions with little or no training and development.

“It baffles my mind that the world-class training and development of the past have disappeared. Eskom is a technical business and is maintained and operated by people, surely the most important asset in the organisation. How do you expect sustainable success if you don't continually and properly look after these assets?

“I can still walk into a substation, and just by listening I can tell you if there's a problem or not. And you won't get that from someone who lacks sufficient experience.

“The English call it ‘growing your own timber.' Eskom must cultivate its own saplings."

Rotting from the inside

I understand the maintenance issues, I understand the lack of money, but what lies behind the latest round of unexpected load-shedding? It's not even winter yet, I say.

There is a long moment of silence. A vein pulses in his neck.

“We don't know. What has happened in the past three weeks is inexplicable."

He looks out of the window again. He is clearly weighing his words carefully.

“I believe that much of what is happening now is driven by corruption. Many people benefit when a unit goes offline and then needs to be brought back again — either due to parts or labour. There's no question about it.

“Water is extremely important at a power station. We call it demineralised water. It's purified and chemically treated for use. But yesterday, someone negligently drove a car over a valve at the Camden power station, contaminating all the water. Eight units went offline. Now, you ask yourself, what was the person doing there?”

He tells another story, this time about Tutuka power station.

“Fuel oil is like the spark you use to start a barbecue fire. Just as you blow coal powder into the inside of the boiler, you use fuel oil to get it going. And we realised that more fuel oil is being used at Tutuka than you could imagine, let alone burn. Through controls, we reduced fuel oil usage by R100m a month. Think about that figure. And what happens? Suddenly, the usage at Majuba shoots up.

“The procurement division in generation, in general, is rotten. Corrupt, from top to bottom. I feel for the honest, hardworking colleagues who are trapped in this. And how do you handle it? If you clamp down here, it pops up somewhere else. I believe there is serious organised crime within Eskom. You know the intelligence that André and I get is very credible. So, what I've just told you, we have concrete evidence for."

He looks me straight in the eyes.

“Why do you think the focus now is on getting rid of André and me? It's not just about load-shedding. That's a side issue. It's about getting rid of us."

Because you're digging too deep?


I have one last question: what does he do when the power goes out? Does he have a generator at home?

“Yes, a small one, but I don't use it often; I'm also chewing rocks like every other South African. Two hours at a time one can handle, but yes, when it's four hours, then it gets tough."

Okay, and one last thing: Do he and André de Ruyter speak Afrikaans to each other?

“When it's just the two of us. Over the phone, which we do a lot, every day. Of course, yes."

♦ VWB ♦

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