Is Eskom reminding us what power means, and who has it?
So now we know. Stage 1 load shedding means that 1,000 megawatts must be cut from the national grid. Stage 2 means that there is talk about unbundling Eskom. And Stage 4 means “Suck on that, Cyril.”
Of course I could be wrong. It is possible that the events of the past few days were entirely unconnected.
It could have been a mere coincidence that Eskom instituted Stage 2 load shedding three days after the president announced his intention to divide the country’s biggest crisis into three, more manageable crises.
It might be nothing more than a fluke of the calendar that Eskom predicts load shedding will continue into April, which happens to be just days before the general election.
It might have been pure chance that Eskom “lost” six generating units on Monday, leapfrogging Stage 3 altogether and reminding us what power really means, and who has it, and who doesn’t.
I also don’t want to point fingers at innocent parties. Many South Africans, for example, believe that Eskom has metastasised into a potential country-killer because of decades of corruption and mismanagement.
Some left-leaning comrades, however, have urged me to reject this explanation. The private sector, they tell me, is the real villain here, having deliberately starved Eskom of vital cash, thereby leaving it vulnerable to a takeover by predatory capitalists.
It’s a pretty convincing argument: the residents of Soweto probably are mostly in the private sector, and their decision to withhold the R15bn they owe for electricity has definitely helped put Eskom in its current position.
Irvin Jim, however, blames altogether more shadowy forces.
Interviewed by the Sunday Times this weekend, the High Panjandrum of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA placed the blame squarely at the crocodile-skin loafers of independent power producers.
Indeed, these monsters, who lurk in dark doorways murmuring: “Psst, you want solar? Wind? Very cheap, very clean!” have made such diabolical inroads into the good, honest, law-abiding world of power generation that Eskom now supplies SA with only 95% of its electricity. (Or 100% of its blackouts, depending on which messages need sending.)
The format of the paper’s Q&A column doesn’t allow for in-depth answers so Jim couldn’t go into much detail about how the independents are muscling into the centre of the edge of the industry, but I assume they are using the unfair weapons of the private sector, like calculators and clocks and hiring only two people to do the job of one person instead of the normal 15.
The end of the interview was also infuriatingly tantalising. Asked if he believed Eskom could survive without investors, Jim replied: “Eskom can survive with absolutely no privatisation. If you take IPPs out of the grid, Eskom’s balance sheet will immediately be improved.”
Having been given that taste, I was eager to hear more of Jim’s thoughts on economic matters, for example, the potential benefits to agriculture of farming unicorns and turning their rainbow milk into smoothies, or the exact location of the tree on which the state’s money apparently grows.
But such is life these days. Just as you’re starting to enjoy yourself, the lights go out.
Which brings me back to that curious chain of coincidences at the start.
It is possible that the political and technological events of the last week are not connected. Generators can fail, and if one can fail it is possible that six can fail. It is possible that SA’s trains are being set alight by random vandals. It is possible that our schooling system is mired in mediocrity and failure because, well, maths is hard.
Possible, but unlikely.
I am not suggesting that politically untouchable labour unions would engage in outright sabotage, such as burning trains. The Sunday Times has done that for me. I’m also not suggesting that those unions would take this country hostage to secure the jobs of their members: when you take a hostage you try to keep it alive, and Sadtu has shown itself entirely willing to kill SA by stifling its children.
But when the lights go off and we find ourselves in uncharted territory at Stage 4, you have to ask: who benefits from this omnishambles?
Who sees the spectre of privatisation, with its implicit threat of greater efficiency and job cuts, as an existential threat? And just how many citizens would endanger the country if it meant another year earning a salary (or having their bond paid by union fees?)
In the past few years we have been introduced to people who were willing to break SA for a large amount of money. I think we will soon be meeting others who are willing to do it for a much smaller amount...