Brain drain at the heart of Eskom fiasco, say task teams
There's a lack of strong leadership in key posts at power stations, while critical positions must be filled now, they warn
A fish may rot from the head, but the rampant decay at Eskom has hamstrung the very heart of its business. This was noted by both the task teams appointed to probe the utility’s problems as they finish up their investigations.
Both the presidential sustainability task team and the technical review team have flagged deep concern over a skills deficit at Eskom, which has been so hollowed out by malfeasance that even the inner workings of its far-flung power stations are now suffering the effects.
“One of the issues that really struck us as the president’s task team when we went into Eskom, was that probably the core difficulty and challenge in Eskom at the moment is the issue of skills and capabilities,” said Anton Eberhard, a member of the sustainability task team appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in December 2018. He was addressing the media as part of an Eskom briefing at the Lethabo power station last week.
The role state capture played in this should not be underestimated, he said. “There was extraordinary disruption and undermining of governance systems at board level and at management level. But what we’ve seen in our investigations is just how deep that has run through the organisation and the extent to which skills have been hollowed out. The best people left; there were some of those who had been distracted by rent-seeking activities as well.”
The skills deficit also extends to power-station level and forms a key part of the report that is being completed by the technical review team, appointed by public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan a month ago.
Eskom continues to burn large amounts of diesel to keep the lights on while its ailing fleet of power stations experiences a high number of unplanned outages due, in part, to years of inadequate maintenance. The fleet’s energy availability factor – a measure for plant performance – has historically been kept above 80%, but according to Eskom’s data as of March 31 it has measured just over 63% in the year to date.
According to Phindile Mooketsi, a member of the technical review team and a former Eskom employee, the team will recommend strong leadership be installed in key posts at power stations and critical positions filled urgently.
Eskom’s power stations have been quite seriously impacted by state capture, said Gordhan. He noted that good power station managers were removed and it had negatively affected Eskom’s plant performance.
As it stands, eight power station managers are in acting positions, and in four of these instances the previous managers had been suspended. Appointing station managers in permanent positions is key, Mooketsi said. “A power station is like an airplane – you need a pilot. If you don’t have a pilot, that flight won’t take off,” she said.
According to Chris Yelland, energy analyst and MD at EE Publishers, many of the skills problems at Eskom are a legacy of previous executive management, and in particular of former CEO Brian Molefe and former head of generation and acting CEO Matshela Koko.
“They embarked on a programme of putting their people into key positions. Now Eskom is left with a situation where many have been suspended or removed, and it’s left a big hole,” he said. “Half the exco was cleaned out. Although it may have been necessary, in an environment with so many acting executives it’s hard to take strategic and other important decisions.”
Yelland notes that under the previous leadership too, “a lot of good people couldn’t stand the toxic environment at the time and left”.
Gordhan said many highly skilled former employees are now living abroad. “The more we try to track them down, and these are black and white professionals, the more we find them in different parts of the world doing the work that ideally they should be doing here and mentoring the younger engineers we have on our side,” he said.
Gordhan and Eskom management have committed to filling critical posts with skilled people and insist they have a firm grasp of the issues as they forge ahead with a plan that aims to keep the lights on in winter and beyond. They have acknowledged that implementation is key.
“Really, the emphasis is getting the right people in the right places doing the right thing,” said Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza.