The end of the school term came early this year, with the seaside-bound traffic already snaking down to the coast. And an economy deep in the doldrums meant that business and industry was slowing earlier than usual, ahead of the festive season’s total shutdown.
Under such conditions of reduced electrical demand, a nation gatvol of government crises, institutional collapses and political scandals was looking forward to a happy holiday. Instead, Eskom, out of the blue, imposed an unprecedented stage 6 load shedding, with rolling blackouts of up to four-and-a-half hours a day.
That there were no outage timetables available, is an indication both of Eskom’s incompetence and government’s lack of comprehension at how fast SA’s downward spiral is happening. A stage 6 collapse of the national grid had not been imagined, never mind planned for. Belatedly, Eskom warned it was now readying for stages 7 and 8 also, meaning power could be cut for up to 12 hours a day.
Eskom’s excuses have ranged from wet coal to broken conveyor belts. President Cyril Ramaphosa, cavorting in Egypt on a minor diplomatic junket, hurried home and threw his own bolt into the turbine, stating there had been sabotage by Eskom workers.
There are many on the centre-right who are gleeful about the hastening pace of collapse of the state-owned entities (SOEs). The sooner this happens, they reason, the sooner the governing alliance will be forced to abandon its tattered socialist dreams of a command economy.
Similarly, there are ideological pragmatists, too, in the ANC, who see in the imminent rolling collapse of SOEs an opportunity. It means, goes the reasoning, that the relentless momentum of unfolding events will provide the government with a reason to ignore the policy shackles imposed by the Zuma faction.
They may be right. A month ago, the unions pledged to their members there would be above-inflation increases, no job cuts, and no privatisation at the overstaffed national airline. Today, SAA is in a business rescue process that – if it manages to avoid bankruptcy – will slash the payroll, freeze wages and, at the very least, open the door to public-private partnerships.
Just because ministers have stated Eskom is “too big to fail” doesn’t mean the same processes will not play out there. The only thing “too big” at the power utility is the gargantuan level of indebtedness and the speed with which debt is growing, making the “fail” part of the equation inevitable.
This means, as with SAA, that the ANC is having to contemplate the previously unthinkable.
Independent power producers will soon be allowed, for no other reason than if the government does not allow it, SA’s economy will not grow next year. The ANC has also conceded that the government would consider private investment in SOEs, with the caveat that the state retains majority control.
Admittedly, I may be too optimistic in my reading of the runes. The press statement after the ANC’s recent national executive committee meeting devoted six lines to lamenting the death of struggle stalwart Ben Turok, five lines to congratulating Zozibini Tunzi on winning the Miss Universe contest, and only four anodyne lines to Eskom’s load shedding.
Perhaps reality will have to bite a little harder before the message sinks home. Brace yourself for Eskom’s stage 8. Or even 10?
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