Taking tea with the King while the lights go out in SA

When factories have to shut down machines for long periods, businesses close their doors, hospitals postpone theatre lists, and matric students aren’t able to study for their exams because there is no power, we know the country is in trouble, writes DA leader John Steenhuisen in a letter to the president. He paints a gloomy picture of plans reconsidered, business expansion put on hold, investments withdrawn, tours cancelled, posts frozen and staff retrenched. And Steenhuisen says, when the loadshedding seems indefinite, these things become permanent, until a country slips backwards and fails. But where is the leadership? Read the full text below. – Sandra Laurence

Declare Eskom State of Disaster now, President Ramaphosa

By John Steenhuisen*

John Steenhuisen

Good morning, my fellow citizens,

If you’ve tuned into this broadcast, you’re most likely one of the fortunate South Africans who still has power to their computer or their wi-fi router right now. Millions don’t, and as the day progresses, many millions more will face the same lot.

And they will go through all of this tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, with literally no end in sight.

During these periods, factories shut down their machines, businesses close their doors, hospitals postpone theatre lists, matric students aren’t able to study for their exams.

But even more importantly, future plans are reconsidered. Business expansion plans are put on hold, investments withdrawn, tours are cancelled, posts are frozen, staff are retrenched.

And when the loadshedding seems indefinite, these things become permanent. That’s how a country slips backwards until it fails.

If you read the Eskom press statements, you will know that the available capacity of our country’s power stations has reached a critical stage, with multiple generation units at multiple power stations out of commission at the same time.

Many of these units have been offline for several months, and will be offline for many more, while day-to-day failures at power stations remove even more megawatts from the grid.

And while this shortfall could, until now, be somewhat mitigated through the expensive practice of burning diesel in open-cycle gas turbines, that option is no longer on the cards because Eskom has simply run out of money to buy diesel.

Eskom’s financial year runs to end-March 2023, but their diesel budget for the year has already been spent.

That’s why we’re in and out of stage 4 and stage 5 loadshedding right now.

That’s why no one can predict which stage we’ll be at next week, or tomorrow or even a couple of hours from now.

That is why more and more people are starting to use language like “total shutdown” and “grid collapse” when speaking of our energy crisis.

Those people are not being alarmist. Our country is standing before its greatest ever threat – an event that will dwarf the devastating economic effects of government’s Covid lockdowns.

This is no longer about inconvenience at home or in the workplace. This is about the future of South Africa.

Simply put, our country will not survive the collapse of the electricity grid, should it come to that. And that is where we are headed.

That’s why the response to the energy crisis must be treated as a matter of National Security, and handled with the urgency, the scale and the focus of a war-like situation.

But why does it not feel like we’re in a crisis of National Security?

Where are the leaders responsible for plotting our defense? Where are the weekly updates? What are the details of the plan? What are the budgets? What are they doing, and what can we do?

Why do we have to rely on sporadic press releases from the power utility and then piece together the extent of the crisis ourselves?

Where is Minister Pravin Gordhan in the biggest crisis of his political career?

And more importantly, where is our president?

Well, I’ll tell you exactly where he is. He’s trotting down the Mall of London in a horse-drawn carriage, on his way to have tea with the King.

His country is finally collapsing under the weight of three decades of ANC neglect and looting, and he’s out there trying to shine its tarnished image for the press and investors, and pose for photos at Buckingham Palace.

President Cyril Ramaphosa embarks on State Visit to United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. [Photo: GCIS]

But surely the president knows that if you want to attract new investment and retain current investment, then a reliable supply of electricity is an absolute basic requirement.

This is not the time for flags and parades, for tea and scones and selfies with the Royals. This is the time to bring all hands on deck and stage a fight-back. This is the time to be present, realistic and transparent.

This is the time to be a president.

At the height of the Covid lockdowns, he was on the TV all the time. Where are those updates now?

And where is Deputy Minister DD Mabuza, the man tasked by the president with fixing Eskom?

He’s off on another one of his mysterious junkets in Russia, leaving Angie Motshekga in charge here at home.

So while the country is facing its worst energy crisis along with a public sector wage strike, our president is off swanning with the Royals, we have an acting president abroad and another acting president at home, and no one is doing anything.

It’s time to stop acting and to start leading.

While the media, analysts and energy experts all seem to grasp just how dire the situation has become, our government appears to be sleepwalking straight into this catastrophe.

Could it be that their weak response stems from the fact that they know this crisis is entirely their own doing?

Escalating it now to a crisis of National Security would be an admission that their entire business model around energy, since stepping into government, has been a failure.

An admission that they should have invested in building more capacity far sooner.

An admission that they should have invested far more in the maintenance and repairs of their ageing power fleet.

An admission that they should have retained the critical skills of experienced engineers instead of sacrificing them on the altar of racial transformation.

An admission that they should have opened the energy market to private players a long time ago and on a far bigger scale, instead of clinging to their Cold-War era fantasy of state control and state monopoly.

An admission that their party policy of deploying pliable and corrupt cadres to the executive of a critical entity like Eskom would ultimately sink the utility and drag the country down with it.

And an admission that the relentless looting of Eskom through crooked procurement deals and kickbacks, which has become synonymous with this ANC government, could only ever have one outcome: the destruction of South Africa.

This power station here behind me – Kusile – is symbolic of all these failures.

Construction on Kusile began in 2007 and it was meant to be completed eight years ago, in 2014, and for a budget of R80 billion.

It is now 2022, its final budget estimate has inflated to well over R200 billion, and it’s still not finished.

Kusile has six generation units, but as we speak four of them are down, and will be that way for months, if not years.

Kusile, along with the Medupi station in Limpopo, was meant to be the ANC’s answer to our looming energy crisis. But instead of alleviating the pressure, they’ve simply added to it.

And let us not forget that both Medupi and Kusile saw some of the worst looting in our country’s history. In 2019 a corruption scandal was revealed here at Kusile which involved various Eskom executives, at least four contractors, and R10 billion worth of contracts.

This is not a state-of-the-art power station. This the ANC’s monument to load-shedding.

A massive construction reminding us why they cannot be trusted with our country’s energy plan, or our country’s future, for that matter.

The good news is that they won’t be in charge of this for much longer – they’re a party in rapid decline and very likely won’t see another term of office. But 2024 is not soon enough. This needs to be fixed now.

And so I call on President Ramaphosa to come home right away and address the nation on his plans to avert the disaster of a grid collapse.

And by plans, I mean actual interventions and not just platitudes and vague statements about Eskom having turned a corner.

South Africans are sick and tired of those stories because we’ve been hearing for years how things are looking up at Eskom and how load-shedding will soon be a thing of the past, and yet nothing changes.

Words alone won’t fix this mess. You cannot will it better with thoughts and prayers. You have to be honest about what caused it, and you have to be bold in how you change trajectory.

Since loadshedding began fifteen years ago, the DA has been offering government an endless stream of workable solutions on how to stabilise our electricity supply and turn Eskom around. Those solutions can no longer be ignored.

The very first thing President Ramaphosa needs to do when he steps off the plane is to declare a ring-fenced State of Disaster around Eskom.

This should have been done months ago, when he presented his Energy Response Plan, and his refusal then to concede the urgency and scale of the disaster has now left our grid on the brink of collapse.

This State of Disaster needs to be declared right away so that disaster relief funding can be reprioritised in order to keep the open-cycle turbines running in the immediate term.

But more importantly, a State of Disaster will allow government to bypass its own self-imposed obstacles, bottlenecks and cost inflations in the form of unworkable labour legislation, localisation requirements, cadre deployment and preferential procurement.

These ANC policies lie at the heart of Eskom’s collapse and need to be set aside if the utility is to recover.

Secondly, President Ramaphosa needs to assemble an Energy War Cabinet to see our country through this crisis.

A threat to National Security demands an appropriate response. If he could do so during his government’s Covid lockdowns, he can certainly do so now.

Importantly, this War Cabinet should contain independent experts in the energy field who know what a recovery will require, and who can counterbalance the ideological drag of his ANC cabinet and his deadbeat Energy Minister.

They must be given free rein to act in the interest of the country and not the party.

And finally, President Ramaphosa must agree to urgently address the critical skills shortage at Eskom.

From the executive to management to employees, the utility desperately needs experts in power generation. Most of the critical jobs at Eskom are currently held by people who don’t know what they’re doing.

Those experts are out there – some here in South Africa, some abroad – and we need to recruit them into Eskom as a matter of urgency.

Forget cadre deployment, forget the made-up rules on employment equity, all that matters here is employing the people who can save Eskom and save our country.

When the City of Cape Town was facing the very real prospect of taps running dry a few years ago, they didn’t overcome the challenge alone. They leant heavily on outside experts to guide them through the crisis, and they also called on the public to become part of the solution.

This combination of government response, independent expert guidance and public buy-in through dramatically reduced water usage is ultimately what saw Cape Town survive the drought crisis.

This is what we now need to replicate on a national level if we want to avert the catastrophe of a grid collapse. Never before has this “whole of society” approach been more critical.

President Ramaphosa and his government need to stick their pride and their ideology in their pockets and cast the net wide for help and expertise.

Bring in experts into a War Cabinet, bring back experienced engineers to Eskom, and make ordinary citizens part of the solution by speaking to them honestly and frequently about what they should do to change consumption behaviour.

It also wouldn’t hurt the President to take a leaf from the DA’s book. We may not be in national government yet, but that hasn’t stopped our local and provincial governments from doing all they can to beat load-shedding.

The City of Cape Town has embarked on several projects to reduce its dependency on Eskom and shield residents from load-shedding, and is pioneering a number of new energy interventions.

It has put out a tender for its first Ground Mounted Solar PV Plant in Atlantis, which should be constructed next year. This would then pave the way for even bigger solar plants to be built by the City in the near future.

The City is also currently evaluating bids from its IPP tender, which will ultimately result in a power purchase agreement that will run over a 20 to 25 year period.

When it comes to small-scale embedded generation by households and businesses, Cape Town is leading the way by being the first city in the country with a registration process and basic standards for such generation, as well as an incentive feed-in tariff for customers who have grid-tied systems.

The City is also undertaking a pilot programme which will look to wheel electricity to customers who want to buy energy from third-party suppliers.

And then there is the City’s pumped hydro-storage scheme at the Steenbras Dam, which was optimised earlier this year and now protects City of Cape Town customers from two stages of load-shedding.

In Johannesburg, the DA-led coalition government has also embarked on a multi-pronged approach to reducing its reliance on Eskom, shielding residents from load-shedding, moving Johannesburg to a greener and more resilient source of energy, and ensuring that the energy plan is environmentally sustainable.

This includes launching phase 1 of the City’s IPP bid process, preparing for the rollout of 15,000 solar powered geysers to old age homes, orphanages, shelters and other vulnerable residents, replacing street light units with LED bulbs, installing high-mast solar-powered lights in high crime areas, and supporting community groups that protect infrastructure from cable thieves during load-shedding.

These interventions alone will not save South Africa from Eskom’s failure, but when combined, they can make a massive difference and buy us critical time to get our country’s energy generation fixed.

This is what we mean when we talk of a whole of society solution: contributions of all shapes and sizes, where the sum of the parts can help stave off the catastrophe of a grid collapse.

But first we need President Ramaphosa to grasp the severity of the crisis.

He needs to recognise that we are already in the midst of a crisis of National Security, and he needs to act like a president with a plan to get us out of this crisis.

This plan has to include the help of outside experts in an Energy War Cabinet, it has to include a ring-fenced State of Disaster, and it has to include bringing back critical skills to Eskom.

And then we need to see him on TV every week, with a detailed and honest update on how this plan is progressing.

That is the very least the people of South Africa deserve from their president.

It’s not too late yet to avert this crisis, but very soon it will be. We cannot allow that to happen.

Thank you.

  • John Steenhuisen is the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

Read also:

(Visited 2,026 times, 53 visits today)