||South Africans will recall the ANC as a liberation movement, promising “power to the people”. Now, fourteen 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 have lost faith in their promise of a “better life for all”. Eskom’s power cuts have hammered in the final nails in the coffin of public faith in our elected representatives and our public institutions. We’ve now effectively lost faith in their ability to effectively 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 government and political parties is dropping. Recently Cape Town- based NGO, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (ICJR) released a report which found that overall public confidence in the government and political parties has dropped 10% since 2006 and that the “level of trust” in leaders has 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 materialized. 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 power outages lasting much longer than the promised maximum of two hours a day in one place. These communities do not have access through the media to complain, unlike those in the more affluent suburbs.
Moreover, Eskom’s time schedule of power 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 pro-active forward planning for their daily consumption needs.
South Africans are paying a heavy price for the incompetence of our leadership and public institutions. We’ve simply had to adjust ourselves to with 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 steaming ahead at 8%, and economists warn us that we may well have to adjust ourselves to the bleak prospect of further cost increases of 18% over the next few years in order 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, impacted on the investment climate, and consequently on the job creation and economic development we so desperately need.
President Mbeki’s graceless apology to the country for the power crisis, comes a decade too late. Government has quite 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 government that national power generation capacity was becoming depleted, and yet the Presidency and the cabinet chose to willfully ignore these warnings. Intent on privatizing not just Eskom but other state utilities, and selling them off to the highest bidder, they ignored Eskom’s management and stopped them building new generators. Although Eskom was expected to run itself along commercial lines, it was government (Eskom’s sole shareholder), which 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 unrecognized 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 willfully neglect such a crucial aspect of our economic planning?
Take for example, Alec Erwin, our Minister of Public Enterprises. When called upon to address the issue of power outages in the Western Cape last year on the eve of national local government elections, he downplayed the fears expressed by communities and adamantly denied a looming national electricity emergency. Instead he blamed the power outages 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, Alec Erwin conceded that the power outages be treated as a national emergency.
But it is our Deputy President Phumzile whom we should look to. Mhlambo- Ngcuka presided at the head of the energy and minerals ministry when 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- due to an unexpected power outage in Johannesburg.
There is no doubt that 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 minimizing 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 and 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 Center for Civil Society.