Cape Town – In an open plea to President Cyril Ramaphosa, industrialist and businessman Dr Iqbal Survé sat down with us in an exclusive interview to talk about what it’s going to take to fix Eskom – before all the lights go out.
That Eskom needs a radical overhaul, said Dr Survé, goes without saying. “I firmly believe that Brian Molefe is the man for the job, and he needs to be brought back – yesterday.”
He said under Molefe’s tenure there were significantly fewer power failures than there are today. While commentators are quick to blame the situation on old infrastructure, broken conveyor belts, inferior coal – that same infrastructure was there during Molefe’s tenure and so too, the same problems.
Like other pundits commenting on the same issue, Dr Survé references how the country’s business sector is being annihilated by these revolving blackouts.
The Sekunjalo Group, which has revenues of just under R10 billion annually, employs 8 500 people throughout its portfolio, and by extension, is responsible for more than 20 000 dependents. It is a group that contributes to the fiscus – PAYE, VAT, income tax etc. The group also has a procurement budget of around R3bn to 4bn for products and services from local businesses.
Sekunjalo and its suppliers are feeling the pinch of the constant power failures. It is not alone. Small businesses, in particular, have a very little buffer between them and total collapse.
Dr Survé said unemployment was being exacerbated because businesses were not able to manufacture, transport, or plan anything with any reliability and this was affecting the revenue of all these businesses.
Restaurateurs, he said, already had difficulty in dealing with Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns and now these power failures. They, like most other businesses, do not have the wherewithal to purchase and maintain fuel heavy generators.
In short, this situation is not sustainable, and the economy is heading towards an even greater disaster. Yet, said Dr Survé, Eskom is still fixable – just.
He said one of the key problems surfacing out of Eskom, is the apparent trust deficit between its chief executive, André de Ruyter, and many of Eskom’s seasoned engineers and senior management. De Ruyter might have corporate experience, but he does not appear to comprehend power generation and there is a lack of confidence in his abilities.
Critically, under De Ruyter, Eskom’s losses have increased several tens of billions. Corruption continues unabated. There are power stations that are in and out of commission, and in some cases – as recently reported at its Tutuka power station in Mpumalanga – fuel is stolen, to the tune of R100m per month. That equates to a staggering R1.2bn per annum.
“If you assume for a moment that the syndicate stealing fuel from Eskom is not targeting just one but many, the losses at Eskom could be in the tens of billions each year,” said Dr Survé.
He said as much as he supported renewable energy and believed that in the long term it was important for sustainability and for the climate, South Africa had an immediate crisis, which needs fixing now.
“In the short-term, renewable energy cannot replace what is needed for our industrial economy right now; there is probably a 10-to-20-year transition first. For now, however, we have to fix what we have and that requires the management of Eskom to know what they are doing.”
Recently, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported: “South Africa’s coal-reliant power utility, has become the world’s biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide, a pollutant linked to ailments ranging from asthma to heart attacks.”
Reminding the public of the “white elephant disasters” that are the coal-fired Medupi and Kusile power stations, Dr Survé said that with their constant "breakdowns", they are costing Eskom (and by default taxpayers), some tens of billions of rand per annum. “It’s abundantly clear that control systems boilers and the design are not working and we can expect these power stations to continue to trip and for there to be even more problems at Eskom.”
Whatever Molefe’s history, he is a South African with experience in running large corporations successfully and with a track record at the power utility. Dr Survé believes that Molefe understands the culture at Eskom and is the person to get the engineers back on track.
Dr Survé also remarked how South Africans had a forgiving nature. “That being the case, is it not worth considering bringing Molefe, who has the credentials, to rescue, not just the power utility, but the country’s economy, which is at stake… all while the ANC continues to play the blame game?
The ruling party’s underperformance in the recent municipal elections is indicative of a loss of confidence in its abilities to deliver services. Eskom is a clear example of this and its continued deterioration is hampering economic recovery, already under strain from successive lockdowns due to Covid-19. While every South African supports the president’s call for foreign direct investment to help the country over its economic hump, it is imperative that businesses that exist right now keep the home lights burning.
In his opinion, Dr Survé believes there is only one solution and that is “to replace the management of Eskom with experienced people who understand the current requirements of a power utility and the importance of planning for the future, and who have a track record of keeping the lights on. Brian Molefe did that successfully as the chief executive of Eskom, and while it may not be fashionable to call for his return, and I’m certain I will be criticised for this – it is important to do what is right.”
Dr Survé said Ramaphosa was on record at the Zondo Commission as saying that he recruited Molefe, and that being the case, he can reappoint him – before we are all tripped up and left in the dark.