Eskom stands between ANC and its election hopes


Eskom stands between ANC and its election hopes

The government will try to manage the electricity problem so it does the least possible damage to the ANC at the polls. But it will not be able to do so with integrity, says PIET CROUCAMP.


AS Stephen Grootes pointed out in Daily Maverick this week, nothing is going to affect the 2024 election as much as the decisions made at Megawatt Park over the next three months. For years, almost all the opposition parties have been making political capital from the flaws in the ANC's cadre management of Eskom, but over the next few months, up to the national and provincial elections, the ruling party will come under severe pressure that could determine who will move into the Union Buildings later this year.

Few things cause South Africans more resentment than Eskom's flaws, so the question then becomes: can the ANC keep the lights on for the next three months to avoid a massacre at the polls?

The EFF, which released its election manifesto this week with the mantra “End load-shedding now", obviously has the political dagger at the ready. Ironically, Jacob Zuma's MK Party, while projecting the innocence of a Pontius Pilate, should also benefit from load-shedding. Like the EFF, MK relies heavily on a retaliatory vote and load-shedding is the best motivation for a punitive expedition to the polls.

Of the opposition parties, the DA, which will issue its manifesto in the coming days, is likely to benefit the least from Eskom and the ANC's predicament. It makes the same arguments as the EFF and MK, and perhaps even does so more effectively, but the identity politics of the blue party mean only coloured and white South Africans take notice, and elections in Mzansi are about black support. Something tells me that in the days to come, most black South Africans will be totally unaware of the DA's well-founded opinions about the ANC's role in load-shedding.

This is the harsh reality: the EFF's bloodthirsty propaganda creates significantly more political capital than the verifiable facts the DA might disclose. With its identity politics the DA has painted itself into a corner of credibility and it will have a hard time breaking out of its 19-22% support base even if the power grid collapses completely. The DA will gain no benefit from the weaknesses of the ANC and the government, other than to get its support base in Gauteng to migrate to the colony.

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A bridge too far

As for the rest of the country, South Africans no longer believe ANC and government statements about anything. The only thing that can save the ANC from our doubts is if Eskom keeps the lights on. However, most energy experts agree that it will be almost impossible to extract more from the existing infrastructure on a scale that will make the electorate forget about their cares.

The ANC and minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa will try to manage the availability of electricity politically. Adjustments to maintenance schedules, the burning of gas turbines and even the manipulation of the load-shedding schedule leave room for political managers to calibrate their interests against those of a citizenry that needs to be mobilised for the sake of an ideological agenda.

In Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi is in real danger of having to seek a seat in the opposition benches after the elections. Meanwhile, he is using the budget of the Johannesburg metro to improve the ANC's provincial position. As it is, for example, it makes sense for the City of Johannesburg to turn off Soweto's lights first and for longer, because only a minority of the residents of these southwestern areas pay the city what they are supposed to.

This does not mean the residents of Soweto, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni do not pay for power. These ANC-controlled metros do not benefit, however, because these taxpayers pay periodic connection “fees" to informal “entrepreneurs". Allegations that Eskom technicians are involved in these illegal connections do not sound far-fetched.

The manipulation of the schedule for the sake of the president's State of the Nation address (SONA) is probably the most obvious evidence of political management of the power grid. It's not unlikely that the management at Megawatt Park was literally sitting at the switch, waiting for the president to finish talking so they could get on with essential maintenance on the power grid.

Yet the ill-advised assertion immediately after the speech by Fikile Mbalula, God's conscientious objection to evolution, that the suddenly increased phases of load-shedding should be laid at the door of saboteurs in Eskom's supply and value chains, is not entirely implausible. André de Ruyter made similar claims. But with De Ruyter out of the algorithm, Mbalula's statements cause great discomfort for Eskom's management and for Ramokgopa.

Blame-shifting is, of course, a convenient strategy when bureaucrats or ministers try to escape accountability. Ramokgopa blamed the decline in electricity on unproductive wind and solar farms, among other things. The most dramatic evidence of the effectiveness of blame-shifting was when Gwede Mantashe claimed, with his knee on De Ruyter's throat, that the conduct of Eskom's management was reminiscent of an attempt at regime change.

Cyril Ramaphosa has also now reached the point where he shamelessly tries to shift blame for the ANC's corruption and looting of Eskom to other role players in the economy. Over the past year or two, the Buffalo of Phala Phala has changed from a reformer to an apparatchik. His cynical jibe at the private sector during the SONA when he said he was just looking for a pen to sign the new healthcare act was at the Zuma level of banality.

Ramaphosa's recent habit in formal speeches, using the parlance of Julius Malema in saying “We will do it whether some of you like it or not", is not the hallmark of a political leader who honours his country's democratic constitution; it reveals the mentality of an apparatchik. Unfortunately, this is what is left of the statesman who made a speech of hope in the National Assembly on February 16, 2018 after the nine wasted years of Jacob Zuma. The distinction between power-hungry Zuma and an inept Ramaphosa is increasingly insignificant. The president has now so often misunderstood the problems at Eskom that his statements all sound like lies.

Ramaphosa chose the Zondo commission to acknowledge the political fraud in the ANC's frontal lobe. His denial that cadre deployment is a form of state capture by the ANC is also a denial that his party's political policies are the root of the evil at Eskom. His understanding of complexity is so questionable that I can no longer tell with conviction whether he is deliberately lying or not.

A good example of the flaws in Ramaphosa's understanding of economic realities was when he proudly declared in the SONA that the economy is three times larger than it was 30 years ago. Figures are clearly not his strong point. Economists could point out to him that it is important to offset real economic growth against inflation. World Bank data indicates that South Africa's GDP grew from $187.38 billion in 1994 to $360.71 billion in 2022. The data for 2023 is not yet known. The South African economy is therefore 1.9 times bigger, not three times.

Africa Check points out that in his address he also confused the number  of grants paid with the number of recipients. According to Sassa's records, just under 19 million grants are paid out to just short of 12 million recipients. Ramaphosa overstated the number of grant recipients by seven million. The president also understated the growth in the number of working people since 1994 by 900,000. His number was 8 million, the real one is 8.9 million. Maybe he just doesn't pay attention to the details of important things, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to decide whether the president is lying or just being ignorant.

Ramaphosa must have known his claim of progress on Eskom's problems was false: “We are confident that the worst is behind us and the end of load-shedding is finally within reach." Just over eight hours later, South Africa moved to stage 4 and thence to an indefinite stage 6. In 2015, he made the same false promises.

I'm not an energy expert but something tells me the only real option Ramokgopa and the ANC have is to burn gas and diesel for as long and as hard as possible. Whether that will be enough to keep the lights on long enough is hard to say. The reality is probably that our power stations' boilers are eroded from age and inadequate maintenance and can't keep up the pace any more. And sometimes, as in the past week, several boilers break down at once and stage 6 load-shedding cannot be avoided.

Energy expert Chris Yelland describes the situation at Eskom's power stations as “out of control". If this is true, the government has only a slim chance of running Eskom in a way that doesn't disadvantage the ANC during the elections. Power stations and steam boilers that fail are currently so unpredictable that it is impossible to maintain an orderly load-shedding schedule.

Yes, Ramaphosa and the government will certainly try to manage Eskom so that it causes the least possible damage to the ANC, but they will not be able to do so with integrity. I still think the ANC will be able to hold on to a majority of 50-52%, but stage 6 load-shedding on polling day will make a backbencher of Gwede Mantashe after the elections, believe you me.

♦ VWB ♦

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