SA’s “expectationless cheerfulness” – deconstructing SONA and the ANC’s newly discovered urgency

Theuns Eloff discusses the recent State of the Nation Address in South Africa and the skepticism that many have towards the government’s promises due to their track record of incompetence and corruption. Eloff’s article highlights the lack of technical skills and project management capacity as a major issue in infrastructure investment and questions the government’s allocation of R600 million for project preparation instead of addressing the root problem of recruitment and training of qualified individuals. The urgency to stop loadshedding, with the ever-rising dissatisfaction among South Africans, is also discussed in the context of the upcoming 2024 election and the ANC’s declining support. Find the article below.

What’s behind the ANC’s newfound urgency with Eskom?

By Theuns Eloff 

There is an Afrikaans saying that tens of thousands of golfers go to the golf course each Saturday with “verwagtinglose blymoedigheid” (expectationless cheerfulness). They are mostly unsuccessful, but next Saturday they are there again – in the same spirit.

In the same way, millions of South Africans prepared to listen and watch the recent SONA. Many of them could not complete the experience – because of load shedding. But their expectationless cheerfulness made way for mere disappointment.

Many South Africans would really have liked to believe all the promises they heard about the things that make them suffer and worry them. But it all sounded too much like what came out of the president’s mouth in 2018, 2019, 2202, 2021 and 2022.

It makes one think about what someone had said about the incapable and clumsy ANC government. Once a decision was taken and announced, in their heads and minds it is dealt with – tick the box! What are you saying about project planning, timeframes, implementation, and monitoring?

Just take the decision, announce it with great fanfare and (hopefully) some political points, and there you go! E-tolls are a recent example, but there are many others – just check the issues on Ramaphosa’s annual wish list.

Read more: Helen Zille: Inside out – how corruption and crime have infiltrated SA’s institutions

Unfortunately, one must take many of the announcements in the SONA that this or that project will – after “unavoidable delay” (read: incompetence and corruption) – now definitely come off the ground, with a bucket of salt.

The biggest problem is that good plans have to be executed and implemented, but the public service is limping and corrupt, mainly because of the toxic combination of race transformation, cadre deployment and corruption.

In this regard, the SONA contains a little gem that cannot go by unnoticed. The president says (quite correctly) that one of the biggest stumbling blocks in infrastructure investment is the lack of technical skills and project management capacity.

But instead of mentioning the recruitment and/or training of appropriate persons (of whatever race), he say the following. “To fix this, Infrastructure South Africa has been allocated R600 million for project preparation, specifically in rural and under-resourced areas.” In one paragraph, the core of the problem is (unintentionally) exposed: don’t look for the right people, just throw more money at the problem, and leave it to the people who caused the problem in the first place.

There was the acknowledgement that the seeds of the energy crisis were shown “many years ago” – and this time around the evil apartheid could not get the blame. Furthermore, there was the acknowledgement that the energy crisis was indeed a problem and a crisis (and not just the politically correct “challenge”).

The tax incentives for people and organisations that generate their own electricity, and the buying of such excess electricity, were also good news. And finally, it was good to hear that the cumulative foreign capital investment has grown.

The majority of commentators, however, remained sceptical, although they did acknowledge that there were two totally new issues in the speech: the appointment of a minister of electricity in the Presidency, and the declaration of a state of disaster because of the energy crisis. The latter has been commented on vigorously, including a stern warning from Solidarity that it is unnecessary and prone to corruption. On the new electricity minister there has been a fair amount of speculation.

Read more: Why South Africa’s opposition must avoid a coalition with ANC and EFF

It is, however, more important to ask and understand why these steps are now all of a sudden taken?

Most recent polls show clearly that the ANC will fall below 50% of national support in the 2024 election. Those few who forecast support below 40% do not take into account that the ANC will take desperate measures to prevent this, most probably using state resources.

The reasons for the ANC’s waning support are diverse, but it is very clear from social media, mainstream media and conversations at gas stations and in restaurants that Eskom’s load shedding has been the last straw for many. And while President Ramaphosa still is about 10% more popular than his party, that gap is narrowing, because many believe he should have done something about the Eskom crisis a long time ago.

Viewed clinically, the haste and urgency to stop load shedding now does not stem from a new urge to improve service delivery to all South Africans. The answer came out clearly, albeit unintentionally, from the attacks that ANC MPs made on the CEO of Eskom, Andre Ruyter, recently in Parliament.

In reaction to his realistic time frame of two years before load shedding could diminish, their reaction was that “we do not have two years”. By this they did not only mean that two years were too long. They meant that as the ANC they cannot wait two years before the great source of their decline at the polls, load shedding, is eradicated. The 2024 election is around the corner and you must stop load shedding soon, lest the liberator of the people loses the election (and power).

In passing, it should be noted that the ANC MPs’ accusations were probably orchestrated to direct blame away from the ANC itself. But with the accusation that De Ruyter should not “burn” diesel, but coal, they exhibited in public that they had not even mastered the first phase of the four phases of learning.

The first phase of learning is “you don’t know that you don’t know”. Once you learn further, “you know that you don’t know”. After learning more, “you know that you (now) know”. And when knowledge and experience become almost instinctive, you don’t anymore “know that you know”. Well, some ANC MP’s have apparently not even moved into the first phase.

The second proof that the urgency around load shedding is not a new calling for the ANC, is the fact almost everything announced as new and urgent, are matters that had been raised by De Ruyter and the Eskom board for more than a year. In Ramaphosa’s SONA some of these are mentioned.

·       The treasury will seek a solution for Eskom’s R400 billion debt;

·       The treasury will make more funds available for diesel so that can prevent the worst phases of load shedding;

·       A specialist unit against crime and corruption inside Eskom will be established;

·       The private generation of power of electricity will be promoted and incentivised by tax allowances; and

·       The purchase of privately generated electricity will be made possible.

Eskom had previously asked for a ring fenced state of disaster around Eskom (similar to what the DA had requested). This would have given Eskom management more room to manoeuvre and speed up procurement.

When De Ruyter and Eskom requested these urgent things to prevent more phases of load shedding, their pleas fell on deaf ears. It is not possible, there is no money, and the like. Now all of a sudden these measures are announced by Ramaphosa as if they were the imaginative thinking of the ANC government.

Truth is that the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) insisted that drastic steps should be taken, otherwise the ANC will fall even further under 50% in the 2024 election. And obviously, in a state of disaster there will always be state tenders from which the comrades can earn a few rand.

A last aspect must be highlighted. Gwede Mantashe’s infamous and nonsensical statement that Eskom’s problems could easily be solved within six to twelve months, is not only witness to his lack of insight and knowledge, but it also shows how far his Karpower slip is hanging out.

Read more: Can the new Minister of Electricity fix South Africa’s power crisis? – Katzenellenbogen

That is the reason why he is fighting tooth and nail to bring Eskom under his control. The Karpower gas ships would obviously bring some relief to our energy crisis, but at what price? It will, in the long run, cost the country, especially if we are talking about a twenty year contract.

While South Africans will obviously welcome the fact that load shedding would diminish or come to an end, we must be under no illusion that the ANC government wants to do it for us from the goodness of their hearts. It is purely about self-interest and the retention of power in 2024. And if they, as in the past, have to damage the medium and long term future of Eskom and the country irrevocably in their own interest, they will do so.

The other question is, of course, whether they are capable of doing it in even two years, without destroying Eskom’s generation capacity permanently. It is highly unlikely and therefore our energy future lies with ordinary South Africans and the private sector. They must just be allowed to make their contribution.

*Theuns Eloff is an independent commentator.

This article was first published by Netwerk24.

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