||South Africans will recall the ANC as a liberation movement, promising
"power to the people". Now, 14 years into democracy, we are asking for
our power to be given back to us - literally.
But we are losing faith that our government will be able to deliver on
its promises, just as we have lost faith in its promise of a "better
life for all".
Eskom's power cuts have hammered the final nails into the coffin of
public faith in our elected representatives and our public institutions.
We've now effectively lost faith in their ability to manage the country,
and certainly not since the days of civil unrest and uncertainty
preceding the 1994 elections have South Africans experienced this level
of pessimism and anxiety.
Statistics show that public trust in the government and political
parties is dropping.
Recently a Cape Town-based NGO, the Institute for Justice and
Reconciliation, released a report which found that overall public
confidence in the government and political parties had dropped 10% since
2006 and that the "level of trust" in leaders had decreased from 64.5%
in 2006 to 57% last year.
No small wonder. After days of unpredictable and haphazard rolling
blackouts, South Africans are understandably frustrated and angry. The
euphemistically named "load-shedding" programme promised to consumers by
Eskom (and intended to be carefully planned and well communicated) has
not materialised. Instead, we have had to accustom ourselves to
unscheduled power outages, sometimes cut up to three times in the course
of one day, and without notice.
Poorer communities complain that they have been affected
disproportionately, with outages lasting much longer than the promised
maximum of two hours a day in one place.
These communities do not have access to the media to complain, unlike
those in the more affluent suburbs.
Moreover, Eskom's time schedule of outages has not been notably
successful. Firstly, it has not been widely accessible. It was
originally available solely on its website and it has only lately been
published in the daily newspapers for broader access.
Eskom's schedule is also subject to unscheduled and extended cuts taking
place outside the planned timeframes. Therefore it has proved difficult
for households to engage in any kind of forward planning for their daily
South Africans are paying a heavy price for the incompetence of our
leadership and public institutions. We've simply had to adjust ourselves
to personal discomforts and inconveniences such as cold food,
candlelight, traffic jams or interrupted schooling.
Moreover, we're still reeling from the 14% hike in the cost of
electricity, particularly so at a time when inflation is streaming ahead
at 8%, and economists warn us that we may have to adjust ourselves to
the bleak prospect of further cost increases of 18% over the next few
years to pay for Eskom's increased capacity needs.
The economists are only beginning to count the cataclysmic effects of
the power crisis on the economy.
Production has been disrupted, equipment damaged and food/perishable
goods spoiled or lost. In turn, this has increased the cost of doing
business in South Africa and has impacted on the investment climate, and
consequently on the job creation and economic development we so
President Thabo Mbeki's graceless apology to the country for the power
crisis comes a decade too late. The government has clearly shown itself
incapable of taking the long-term view with regard to crucial strategic
decisions. The Department of Minerals and Energy was fully aware, from
as early as 1998, that without investment by 1999, the country's energy
supplies would be running low by 2007.
Eskom had repeatedly warned the government that national power
generation capacity was becoming depleted, and yet the presidency and
the cabinet chose to willfully ignore these warnings.
Intent on privatising not just Eskom but other state utilities, and
selling them off to the highest bidder, they ignored Eskom's management
and stopped it building new generators. Although Eskom was expected to
run itself along commercial lines, it was the government (Eskom's sole
shareholder) that repeatedly denied Eskom permission to build new
generators and caused the crisis to the extent we are faced with today.
It is both an abysmal political and technocratic failure that this
problem has gone unrecognised and hence unaddressed, as the economy has
grown and the existing power capacity has become progressively depleted.
What were our leaders and managers thinking? How could they wilfully
neglect such a crucial aspect of our economic planning?
Take, for example, Alec Erwin, Minister of Public Enterprises.
When called upon to address the issue of power failures in the Western
Cape last year on the eve of local government elections, he downplayed
the fears expressed by communities and adamantly denied a looming
national electricity emergency. Instead, he blamed the power cuts on
sabotage at the Koeberg nuclear power plant.
When police investigations revealed no evidence of sabotage or foul
play, the minister tried unsuccessfully to retract his statement, to the
disgust of many.
Ironically, on Friday last week, Erwin conceded that the power failures
be treated as a national emergency.
But it is Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka whom we should look
to. She presided at the head of the energy and minerals ministry when
the government was first alerted about the pending power crisis. As
such, she, along with the national executive, must be held accountable
for the dismal failure of her portfolio.
Ironically, when she made an apology in Parktown last week, it was by
torchlight - owing to an unexpected outage in Johannesburg.
The government and Eskom have not applied their minds effectively to the
problem. Their response is to bombard consumers with price hikes and
hector us about saving.
But even the most basic information about saving electricity has not
been forthcoming, beyond the usual advice on switching off geysers or
minimising the use of household appliances. Meters should have been
already set up in homes to monitor usage and information and log
savings. Experts point to a range of measures to alleviate the power
crisis, such as gas or solar water technology.
Some green experts have even suggested generating temporary capacity on
ships or barges. But we have heard little about Eskom's and the
government's plans to deal with the crisis, beyond the usual round of
emergency talks promising solutions.
Are the power cuts more serious than Eskom and the government have
divulged? What is going to happen in winter? It may well be surmised
that the full costs of the incompetence and mismanagement we are
experiencing are yet to be fully felt.
Annsilla Nyar is a researcher at the UKZN-based Centre for Civil Society.