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Government accused of using Eskom to appease voters

The government's attempt to keep the lights on is believed to be nothing but a dramatic action that is orchestrated to appease the public ahead of next year’s elections. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

The government's attempt to keep the lights on is believed to be nothing but a dramatic action that is orchestrated to appease the public ahead of next year’s elections. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Published Jul 23, 2023


The government’s attempt to keep the lights on is believed to be nothing but a dramatic action that is orchestrated to appease the public in the build-up to the 2024 national elections.

The National Employers’ Association of SA (Neasa) said the recent remarks made by Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa were presumably exercised for public appeasement in view of upcoming elections.

This was after Ramakgopa earlier this month told the media that Eskom had sufficient generating capacity to withstand the winter.

However, a few days after Ramokgopa’s remarks the power utility announced the implementation of load shedding Stage 6. The utility said this was due to the loss of an additional generating unit.

Ramokgopa’s spokesperson Nombulelo Nyathela referred questions to her colleague Kutlwano Huma who forwarded questions to Eskom. The state-owned power utility said it would provide feedback as soon as possible.

Neasa policy advisor Charis Esema-Onaolapo said Eskom had been plagued by governance issues for years and had become a breeding ground for corruption, mismanagement, lack of transparency, and sabotage.

Esema-Onaolapo said the magnitude of the utility’s troubles was staggering, including a “monstrous” debt of more than R422 billion.

“This massive debt burden, accumulated over years of neglect, corruption, and insufficient infrastructure investment, has pushed Eskom to borrow heavily to keep operations and electricity running,” Esema-Onaolapo said.

She further said: “Servicing the debt while maintaining operational efficiency has proven to be an insurmountable challenge. The consequence, is load shedding, a recurring nightmare for South Africans, and a major blow to businesses and the overall economy.”

Energy expert Lungile Mashele said Eskom had spent too much on diesel since the current regime took over. She said Eskom spent R340 million on diesel in 2017 compared with the utility being expected to spend R21 billion this financial year.

“If you look at the Energy Utilisation Factor, which is what we are looking at, it’s how high our plant is actually run. The international benchmark says it must be 76%. In the 2017 financial year, you were looking at an 83% marginal increase and if you look at 2022 it was sitting at 93%.

“This is in contrast to everything that we were told about Brian Molefe and Matshela Koko’s era that they were running the plants hard. In essence, it has been run harder.

“If you look at Energy Availability Factor, in 2017 it was sitting at 75% which is the highest possibly seen in the last decade. In 2022 it was 58% and currently, it sitting at just below 50% depending on the month that we are in.

“The spend on new capacity … was at around R13bn in 2017 and only R3bn was spent new capacity in 2022.” Mashele said the last time Eskom was profitable was in 2016 with a profit of R900 million.

When reached Eskom apologised saying: “Eskom is cognisant and apologises for the inconvenience and hardship that load shedding causes the people and economy of South Africa.

“The two main contributors to this are the unreliability and unpredictability of the Generation fleet and a national shortage of capacity. In light of this, Eskom is focussed on improving the availability, of the coal fleet in particular, in order to minimise the level and frequency of load shedding.

“We have seen an improvement in the availability of the fleet since the beginning of the year but the plants remain unreliable and unpredictable which means that short-term variations in plant performance and demand levels may result in higher or lower levels of load shedding than were forecast.”

Esema-Onaolapo assented that in recent times, South Africans did indeed see a slight decrease in load-shedding frequency. In a subsequent media briefing, Ramokgopa said he was confident that Eskom had enough generating capacity to withstand the cold weather.

“However, barely a week after the minister’s prognosis, thanks to the running of already crippled power plants at vastly unsustainable intensity, the power utility announced its remission into another bout of Stage 6 load shedding,” Esema-Onaolapo said.

She further said this negligent overdrive, “presumably exercised for public appeasement in view of upcoming elections”, was evidently far from a permanent solution.

“It is in fact, as Jan Oberholzer, previous chief operations officer of Eskom, aptly states, akin to operating a car without proper maintenance. Eskom keeps engaging the accelerator, constantly keeping it pressed to the floor despite failing to conduct proper maintenance. It simply does not remedy Eskom's ailing predicament in any way.”

She said this band-aid “solution” would do nothing to address the deep-rooted problems that plagued Eskom, adding that it was merely a facade, concealing the true extent of the crisis.

Esema-Onaolapa said the financial burden on Eskom continued to grow when adding fuel. “Burning billions without fixing Eskom’s underlying issues is foolish. Eskom’s critical condition demands extensive maintenance, skilled individuals, and the unyielding eradication of corruption. The impact of Eskom’s financial woes reverberates throughout the South African economy.

“Frequent power outages resulting from Eskom’s inability to generate enough electricity have disrupted businesses caused substantial economic losses and have ultimately taken a toll on the country’s fiscal position. These challenges underscore the urgent need to address the systemic issues that plague this state-owned enterprise,” she said.

Esema-Onaolapo said the time for decisive action could no longer be delayed. By prioritising the acquisition of necessary skills, implementing responsible financial management, and ensuring transparency in addressing existing gaps in Eskom, a revitalised era of economic stability could be ushered in.

She said a failure to implement these reforms could see the county experiencing even worse load-shedding stages.

However, some energy experts disagreed with Esema-Onaolapo.

Energy expert Lungile Mashele said the remarks were unfortunate and did not consider the facts. She said Eskom had increased its Electricity Availability Factor (EAF) from 51% in January to 58% in June. She said the utility did this with a return to engineering basics, increased maintenance, and better project management.

Mashele further said the permanent solution to load shedding would be found in a mix of the improvement of coal fleet EAF, a return of the three Kusile units and a unit at Koeberg and Medupi, as well as new capacity expected in the revised Integrated Resource Plan (IRP).

Another energy expert Adil Nchabeleng said ever since Ramokgopa took over, the country witnessed a significant reduction in load shedding from Stage 6 plus to lesser stages. He said Ramokgopa had been at the battle to ensure that more power units were brought back into operation.

“He battled for weeks to add a further 10% improvement on the EAF and power plants performance over his short tenure,” said Nchabeleng.