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OPINION: Humptey traipsing on the wall

We are all curious about the destiny of our dear Eskom. File Photo: IOL

We are all curious about the destiny of our dear Eskom. File Photo: IOL

Published Aug 19, 2018


CAPE TOWN - The new chapter of Eskom recovery is a curiosity for me as the corporation honchos prepare to embark on a long journey of uncertainty. So much is in the realm of conjecture seeing, too many variables are in constant flux all at once. 

I was curious throughout this process. The strike. The negotiations. The announcement of the financial performance etc… Yet I am reminded that mine is not a rarity. My version of curiosity is a microcosmic speck of much of the abundant curiosity vacuum in our socio-political firmament. Curiosity trumps stupidity for second spot after hydrogen in the abundance stake. As a decoy then, I tell myself that I’m not curious, just concerned, naming it as such just so I could escape peer opprobrium. They are not fooled, however. They can discern that it is simply no more than elevated doses of curiosity. So now, I am fully curious, all cylinders in full throttle. Where is this Eskom story heading?

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So many modern aphorisms contribute much in perverting the need for a factual inquiry into the workings of modern concepts. One of these aphorisms is “Too big to fail”. Small things do not qualify for this benefit. By implication what is not expressly included, is impliedly excluded. Defined as such, the extent of its arsenal, the warm bodies it employs, the businesses that depend on it, the debt it owes, Eskom belongs to this esteemed category of too big to fail.

So when the talking heads mumble something about a corporation too big to fail, it’s because it has failed already. All they are referring to is the motivation for its salvage. When a corporation, private or public, is tasked to deliver essential services to the republicans, there is always a need to ensure its sustainability especially when it occupies a strategic role at the epicenter of the economic, social and political junctions. And so when the ominous signs of financial and moral ill-health manifest, we are alive to the possibility of something tragic happening. By the time we wake up to it, the giant has fallen. Not failed… at least not yet. And as we gasp in confusion wholly petrified as to how the mighty have fallen, there looms large the specter of the white winged horse of salvation emblazoned in bold letters, Too Big to Fail!

When is it convenient to pronounce that a giant has fallen? 

The importance of this inquiry resides in the need for those whose responsibility it is to know what to do when the bellwether of distress begins to chime. Pronounced early, the cost of the surgery to help them would be affordable, and so shorten the recovery period as they do. If this pronouncement was made in respect of SAA woes early enough some years ago, its trajectory of recovery would be anything but this severe. At different times, curiosities may assume various guises, adorning as they are wont, colorful appellations of convenience. Political curiosity is one of them. Professional curiosity is another oft’ cited embellishment representing nothing more than pure curiosity. And in a rather innocuous way, christened as such, attributes it with purport. And so we are all curious about the destiny of our dear Eskom. Many billions in debt. Trade unions demanding ransom. Borrowings to keep foreign creditors at bay. Legacy challenges and an ageing infrastructure. 

Say a prayer for Eskom.

The diagnostics don’t look good, and the breaking up of a behemoth into big awkward chunks is looking inevitable. What chunks may spawn out of this cataclysmic fall remains to be seen and indeed, what surgical peremptories will be prescribed, holds our common imagination in full fascination. Verily my countrywomen and countrymen, the alleyways of curiosity are fickle and tend to complicate rather easily. Watching the SAA saga with some degree of focus, what may come out of the operation room is a different airline. SAA shall be gone. The only thing too big to fail would be the name SAA. Its culture, its essence, and its instincts may be altered forever. It's a Kardashianesque twist. A human will emerge. Her essence would have changed. She will be a new phenomenon of her own world, and thus, ours.

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Big institutions such as Eskom tend to have enormous capital, and along with it, leverage. They tend to use it for a variety of purposeful causes. Leverage, however, like capital, is a finite commodity. The bigger the capital one possesses, the bigger the leverage. When it shrinks, the elasticity of its inverse relationship with leverage snaps. And in a swoosh, the leverage is gone. If in the past, such leverage was used to negotiate all kinds of tricky situations, small wonder our curiosity needles are oscillating wildly. The trade unions for their part, need their political leverage too. The closer they orbit around the universal gravity of the ruling party, the greater would be their leverage to negotiate, notwithstanding the reasonableness or otherwise of their demands.

It would seem that in any negotiation situation, the protagonists must possess adequate leverage if the outcomes should be just, swift, realistic and sustainable. When both of them lose this leverage, Humpty Dumpty will not fall from the wall… the wall will simply buckle. Don’t get me wrong. Humptey will not demise at once. But when you need to recreate Humpty sitting on a thin wall, you require a new wall and invariably a new Dumpty. Whatever you call it, it won’t be that chubby happy go lucky fella who was gleefully traipsing on the wall, busy tempting fate..

Ambassador Bheki Gila, is a Barrister-at-Law.

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