COMMENT: Taking Eskom, the grimy, rotting, bull by the horns

Like it or lump it, South Africa’s national power generator is a rotting bull beset by mismanagement, malfeasance and sloppy repairmen.

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At last, the politicians have summoned up the courage to take the former prize bull called Eskom by the horns. Like it or lump it, South Africa’s national power generator is a rotting bull beset by mismanagement, malfeasance and sloppy repairmen.

If the shake-up of Eskom succeeds it will not only save hundreds of businesses, but also ease the ire of millions of Africans who merely want to flick on a light switch. It will also bring into sharp focus the folly of complacency as break downs and maintenance have left South Africa with 29,000 MW – not enough to meet summer demand – when it should enjoy 47,000 MW of installed capacity.

Read: Guptas and midnight contracts castigated in Eskom shake up

For years everyone thought Eskom was the bees knees. It was a world class operator and a pioneer of power generation in African that produced more than half of the continent’s electricity. It took out adverts to pat itself on the back and the South African public believed the lights would burn forever. South Africans could even afford to snicker at jokes about its power-strapped neighbours: What did Zimbabwe use before candles? Answer: electricity!

Read: Lights out, game on- No Christmas of rest and turkey for the bosses in a dingy tale of decay

That joke is not funny anymore in South Africa after a decade of power cuts. The irony is, while many African nations, who have been scraping by on four-figure MWs for years, are now throwing money into building up power generation to encourage business, South Africa has let a gem of a system slip through its fingers.

It was an epic fail. When the first power cut shock hit, in January 2008, it closed down the entire South African mining industry. Not even political unrest, nor pestilence, nor two world wars, managed to do this. The last time the industry shut down was during the Rand Revolt of 1922 when soldiers and tanks fought battles with rifle-toting strikers across Johannesburg.

In the dream world of 2008, many people thought the blackouts wouldn’t last, but a combination of botched repair jobs and under investment saw to it that they did.

The complacency set in a the end of 2010, according to public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, when the bosses at Eskom cut back money for maintenance and merely papered over the cracks at coal-fired power stations built in the 1970s that are long past their lifespan.

The political significance of this shake up at Eskom has deep context. The language used by Gordhan is laden with the kind of fighting talk that saw the ushering in of the Cyril Ramaphosa era and the sweeping away of the rot of the Jacob Zuma years. There was talk of fighting back and: “there is something wrong in the kingdom,” that could have come straight out of the campaign to put Ramaphosa in the top job a year ago.

With elections coming in May, the Eskom shake up is likely to strengthen the hand of the new regime to be seen to take a firm hand in solving solve one of South Africa’s biggest problems and impediments to business. If it sweeps away a swathe of incompetence and corruption in the process – all the better when it comes to voting time.

If it ensures the survival of thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of jobs, in the process, it could be one of the momentous and worthy acts of year.

There is likely to be little sympathy, among those who pay rising electricity bills, for the senior executives who will not be lazing by the beach this December. Eskom has cancelled their leave so they can tour the grimy coal-fired power stations to find out what is wrong. It may be less pleasant for the executives to visit their paying customers sitting in their living rooms in the dark.