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  • Joakim Mol Romero

ESKOM for trouble


Examining an energy company's internal affairs is usually not the most riveting endeavour, but South Africa’s Electricity Supply Commission (ESKOM) is a fascinating exception to this rule. A close inspection of the company’s recent history reveals more shedding than a snake, coffees that would best be avoided (yes you read that right), and a collapsing infrastructure system.


"It features the slogan ‘Powering Your World’, yet far too often it fails in this mission, leaving South Africans stranded and powerless."

A mere cursory glance at ESKOM’s own website already reveals some of the problems facing its energy production. It features the slogan ‘Powering Your World’, yet far too often it fails in this mission, leaving South Africans stranded and powerless. Featuring prominently on the website is the latest update on load shedding, a term which people in the Rainbow Nation have become all-too familiar with in recent times.


Load shedding, meaning the intermittent switching off of the power supply to areas of the country because the entire system is at risk, has become an unfortunate quotidian reality of life in South Africa. However unfortunate and problematic these regular cut-offs are, they are a necessary evil due to mismanagement of the grid. Much of the country’s power system consists of ageing and under-maintained infrastructure; it is therefore unsurprising that it is so fragile and prone to breakdowns.


Having only intermittent access to electricity impacts both citizens and businesses, as they experience oppressive psychological impacts having to live in a constant fear of the lights and other powered devices being switched off at a moment’s notice. Small businesses, which are vital to promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth (a UN Sustainable Development Goal), find their entire operations thrown into disarray by load shedding.


Looking just at a café in Johannesburg, the multitude of effects it faces becomes clear. The café, which serves meat in some of its recipes, finds itself unable to store this in fridges and instead has to purchase new supplies every day. Not only food production is affected by power cuts, but electronic payment also becomes impossible, as does the charging of phones, essential to the running of a modern business. This constant disruption is not conducive to a successful culture of entrepreneurship, and it is perhaps unsurprising that in the midst of all this chaos (and the absence of legitimate jobs), many have turned to more nefarious activities in order to make ends meet.


The old adage ‘crime doesn’t pay’ might have to be scrapped here, in place of a rather more sobering alternative in the form of ‘crime pays little, but hard work pays even less’. This saying definitely appears to have been adopted by some close to the government, who have been accused of colluding with organised crime syndicates who steal coal and infrastructure, including copper and aluminium cables, pylons and even bolts, which they subsequently melted down and resold. 


Of course, one common denominator during this period of energy instability has been the African National Congress (ANC), leading many to attribute the blame for the crisis firmly at their door. The ANC has been accused of complacency in ignoring generation issues and in the lack of progress in adding new generation capacity to the national grid. 


That view is one that Andre De Ruyter, who was appointed CEO of Eskom in 2019, shared.  In an explosive televised interview, De Ruyter made shock claims of rampant corruption at the embattled power utility firm, which he claimed served as a ‘feeding trough for the ANC’. De Ruyter’s TV appearance marked the end of his eventful time at ESKOM, as he was sacked shortly after for attacking the ruling party. Although he left his job having failed to tame the problem of power shortage, he will probably have been grateful of the increased peace of mind when drinking hot beverages, given he was the victim of a poisoning attack in which his coffee was laced with cyanide. 


Despite the bleak state that South Africa’s grid currently finds itself in, there is much-needed light (and power) at the end of the tunnel if sensible policies are enacted. A few years ago, an ESKOM roadmap was unveiled which suggested the ‘unbundling’ of ESKOM’s operations into three distinct categories: Generation, Transmission and Distribution. This could herald an important milestone in enabling more private generation capacity to the transmission grid. This report, alongside other messaging from the government, indicate that they have awoken from their slumber, yet it may prove to be too little too late, given voters will have the chance this year to oust the only party that has ruled since the end of Apartheid. Energy blackouts are but one part of the multi-pronged malaise the country finds itself in, meaning the ANC might find itself at the receiving end of a (non-electric) shock.


Image: Flickr - Media Club

(South Africa, Northern Cape Province, 2008: The Gordonia substation for Eskom power supply to Upington.)

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