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Eskom’s reboot won’t work until a new CEO adopts an energy-justice philosophy

Sanelisiwe reads a bedtime story to her daughter Nandi(2) as Eskom load shedding hits the area in Newlands East, Durban. 030215. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu/ African News Agency (ANA)

Sanelisiwe reads a bedtime story to her daughter Nandi(2) as Eskom load shedding hits the area in Newlands East, Durban. 030215. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu/ African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 10, 2021

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OPINION: This week’s Stage 4 load shedding, Eskom’s near-exhausted filthy diesel supplies, the racially-biased load-reduction philosophy, the Glasgow green-washing and the failure to confront Eskom’s corrupt-project lenders reflect a pre-1994 mentality. We deserve better, write Trevor Ngwane and Patrick Bond.

After Eskom’s alleged finance-raising success in Glasgow at the UN climate summit, punctuated by pre-and post-election Stage 4 load shedding back home, it is appropriate to assess the work of its Chief Executive Officer, Andre de Ruyter.

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He was hired in January 2020 to fix the power utility’s problems after many years working at ultra-polluter Sasol. But his commitment and capacity to fix Eskom are now in question.

De Ruyter has become a major political liability to government.

Andre de Ruyter, Group Chief Executive of state-owned power utility Eskom speaks during a media briefing in Johannesburg, South Africa, January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

In large part because of Eskom’s persistent failures, especially where it directly supplies black townships – voters in last week’s municipal elections lost confidence in the ruling party. The share of African National Congress support and electorate turnout (only 12 million voters pitched) both hit record lows.

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One aspect of alienation is abstention by 30 million who were eligible to vote but didn’t. Another is active voter rejection: together, these left the ANC with less than a quarter of potential national voter support.

Another reflection of anger over electricity was a series of protests, especially in Soweto in late October, even on voting day when President Cyril Ramaphosa was booed while casting his own ballot. Ironically, this was his home township, one where during the 1980s, he also led electricity protests and, in the Committee of Ten, negotiated an affordable R10/month flat-rate payment.

After the 1994-99 Mandela honeymoon, organised township civic protest revived in 2000, when the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) was launched to halt price hikes following Eskom’s 1998 commercialisation.

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Although government preferred dealing with the favoured SA National Civic Organisation affiliates, neither public enterprises ministers Jeff Radebe and Alec Erwin nor Eskom officials provided the promised universal Free Basic Electricity at adequate levels (i.e. not just a tokenistic 50 kiloWatt hours per household per month) plus a progressive tariff structure to cross-subsidise from rich to poor.

In what has been measured as the world’s most income-unequal city, Johannesburg, and especially for a core township – Soweto – which contributed so much to apartheid’s defeat, redistributive pricing would have been logical. Not only was this a specific 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme mandate, it was also a popular campaign promise by the ANC, made 21 years ago when a Free Basic Services lifeline policy resulted from water minister Ronnie Kasrils’ successful lobbying within Cabinet.

But Eskom resisted at every step, leading not only to persistent service delivery protests after disconnections but ultimately to 85% of Sowetans having to informally reconnect power. Eskom’s smear campaigns against the so-called ‘izinyokanyoka’ community activists whose mutual aid to neighbours includes ‘commoning’ electricity with insulated reconnections didn’t work.

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So, under De Ruyter’s administration, an apartheid-style collective punishment strategy began, which he termed ‘load reduction.’ After six months on the job, De Ruyters began mass disconnections in Soweto and many other areas – including bankrupt dorpies – penalising all residents and businesses, even those who had paid their bills.

This was in the midst of winter, during the worst period of pandemic lock-down, even though the airborne coronavirus spreads fastest when, inside small township houses, smoke and particulates are emitted when residents lose power and turn to dirty energy sources like wood, paraffin and coal.

It was a counter-productive policy and economically irrational when so many small businesses in Soweto were crippled by load reduction, at a time national government pretended to support a build-back better reconstruction strategy.

This disconnection-discrimination reminds me of Eskom’s historic bias. For when De Ruyters delivered the Hendrik van der Bijl Memorial Lecture at the University of Pretoria on August 17, his review of the firm’s history neglected to mention that populous black communities were, before the 1990s, never supplied power.

In the same spirit, while De Ruyter cuts power to townships and poor municipalities, he uses scarce resources to repay foreign banks which made corrupt loans to Eskom – most egregiously, the World Bank for a $3.75 billion (R56 billion) Medupi coal-fired power plant loan, even though the Washington lender knew full well the ruling party had been bribed by Japanese boiler-maker Hitachi, thanks to Valli Moosa’s role as Eskom chair and ANC Finance Committee member.

De Ruyter also continued ‘Special Pricing Agreements’ that gives two of the world’s biggest mining houses, South32 and Anglo, electricity costing a tenth of the tariff charged residential customers.

In addition to self-reconnections, SECC activists have, over the years, also suggested credit-based (not pre-paid) metering, accurate billing, debt forgiveness, especially for the elderly, rapid repair of infrastructure, and installation of clean (non-coal) household supply (especially photovoltaic solar panels).

Aside from a brief period just before Durban hosted the 2011 UN climate summit – when Eskom briefly installed passive-solar geysers in the country’s most visible townships – the parastatal’s management ignored all these suggestions.

Eskom’s celebrated Glasgow financing deal with high-polluting Western countries may yet salvage De Ruyter’s reputation in Pretoria, yet, for good reasons, it is being rejected by critics such as 350.org and the SA Federation of Trade Unions.

These reasons include De Ruyter’s favoured coal-to-methane conversion planned for the Komati generator, which will ultimately make Eskom more dependent on gas extracted from war-torn Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado. There, at a cost so far of R2 billion, South African soldiers are defending Western oil firms’ and a corrupt government’s interests.

New Eskom loans, denominated in dollars, are irrational: future Just Transition work in Mpumalanga and Limpopo will mainly require local-currency expenditures. As the Rand falls in value, repayments will be much more expensive.

De Ruyter’s failure to consult the metalworkers union, environmentalists and affected communities reveals an arrogance that society simply cannot afford when we urgently need to de-carbonise through a genuine, bottom-up Just Transition process.

In short, this week’s Stage 4 load shedding, Eskom’s near-exhausted filthy diesel supplies, the racially-biased load-reduction philosophy, the Glasgow green-washing and the failure to confront Eskom’s corrupt-project lenders reflect a pre-1994 mentality. We deserve better.

*Ngwane and Bond teach at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology; Ngwane co-founded the SECC.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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