South Africa
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ANALYSIS: Power Out: Political pressure triggers public damage-control messaging to fudge reality of years more electricity outages

It will cost Eskom dearly to burn more diesel to supplement power generation via its turbines. And the cost of holding off on the not-quite-so-essential maintenance to keep power stations going may come back to haunt a power utility that’s struggling with increasingly decrepit infrastructure.

But that’s part of the plan to keep the lights on during Monday’s local government elections and over the following days, according to Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and Eskom CEO André de Ruyter on Wednesday evening. 

“At the weekend, load shedding will stop. On Monday, during the counting of votes, and over the next few days, there will be no load shedding unless there is an unexpected event,” said Gordhan, adding that he’d been assured by Eskom that such (unspecified) unexpected events were unlikely.

Both the minister and CEO spoke at a virtual briefing arranged with about 30 minutes’ notice. The cat was set among the pigeons, so to speak, earlier in the day when ANC Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte vented over the Stage 4 rolling power outages that had been announced 50 minutes before the noon national start.

An Eskom statement earlier on Wednesday explained the jump from Stage 2, which had been in place since last weekend, to Stage 4:

Over the past 24 hours a unit each at Medupi, Kusile and Matla power stations tripped while a unit each at Lethabo and Arnot power stations were forced to shut down. This constrained the power system further, requiring extensive use of emergency reserves and therefore hampering the recovery of these reserves.”

But Duarte, speaking at the launch of the ANC Local Government Barometer, raised questions over the reasons for and lack of clarity on this escalation of rolling blackouts. People had to work, businesses had to run and children had to be fed, she said.

While not quite calling it sabotage, the talk was of deliberate actions for political purposes as the reasons for the outages.

The ANC followed through with a statement suggesting that what lay behind the escalation of rolling power outages “may be the deliberate actions of some within Eskom for political ends”.

The party also voiced concern over inconsistent information and previous promises made only to be broken, and demanded “unequivocal answers” on South Africa’s power supply.

Consistently over the past four weeks on the municipal election campaign trail crisscrossing the country, ANC top officials, including its president, Cyril Ramaphosa, were confronted with complaints about the lack of electricity. This emerged alongside lack of clean water and dignified sanitation as the 2021 elections hot-button issues.

“Given the inconsistency in information and assurances received from the utility, the ANC is by all intents and purposes quite concerned that these acts may be the deliberate actions of some within Eskom for political ends,” an ANC statement said on Wednesday.

“The mixed messages and lack of public transparency and accountability witnessed are a source of grave concern and suspicion. It is also a direct affront to the ANC’s commitment in our manifesto to ensure safe and reliable electricity supply to our communities.”

Raising its concern that rolling power outages might be caused by “deliberate actions of some within Eskom for political ends”, while not quite an assertion of sabotage, comes straight out of the ANC’s playbook on whispering campaigns.

Making such claims can be stacked up into a plausible excuse for non-performance, and deflect attention from the real issues and work that needs to be done – be it cutting staff costs, upping performance and trimming the fat in procurement that had benefited some.

Wednesday’s ministerial and CEO briefing emerged following a series of meetings at Eskom that day, including board and management discussions, as Luthuli House upped the political pressure. Gordhan would have been irate, as he’s developed a reputation as a minister who insists on signing off on most, if not all, matters related to state-owned enterprises. This has led to some interesting moments in Parliament, including a February 2021 meeting of the public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts.

On Wednesday, Gordhan reiterated the damage State Capture had done to institutions like Eskom (“a prime target of State Capture”, he said), not only by “stealing of money or manipulating of contracts” but through systemic damage.

Eskom and the minister chose to highlight one example of human error that led to “600 megawatts to 700MW” falling out of the system. On Wednesday, rolling power cuts escalated to State 4 because, according to Eskom, breakdowns totalled 14,957MW on top of the 5,301MW removed from the grid for planned maintenance.

That human-error example unfolded at Kusile coal power station where, for two hours, someone ignored a flashing red warning light indicating a leaking pipe and low oil levels. That unit seized up. The person was summarily dismissed.

De Ruyter also dismissed any allegations of deliberate sabotage in the latest rolling power outages. “It involves cable theft and criminal activity that hampers activity at power stations,” he said, calling on law enforcement agencies to assist Eskom.

The reality is that the power utility – its R401-billion debt remains one of the biggest threats to South Africa – will not overcome rolling power outages before 2024. It’s own modelling shows 2021 as having the most days of what’s euphemistically dubbed load shedding to date, with prospects for 2022 not much better.

But in times of elections that’s not what anyone wants to hear – most definitely not the politicians.

Gordhan and Eskom have been in a tight spot, given the publicly divergent views on meeting South Africa’s power demand. While minister and CEO seem supportive of renewable energy, Gordhan’s Cabinet counterpart, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, publicly grumbles about wind, solar and gas in a push for continued coal use, and a move into nuclear power.

Curiously, on Wednesday evening Gordhan talked about how nuclear was an option for South Africa’s energy needs. Seemingly prompted by a question on the chat function of the virtual briefing – it could quite easily have been ignored like the others there – Gordhan’s turn into nuclear may signal shifts in the Cabinet power fault lines.

Given the Karpowership debacle playing out in court as environmental approvals have been declined, it’s a space well worth watching! DM