Keep SA’s lights on? We’re too busy having fun
It's much easier for the government to busy itself with transformation bling than with maintaining infrastructure
A few weeks ago, after a family commemoration, I was sitting at a restaurant in Durban North, the suburb where I was born decades ago.
I noticed that our Greek taverna was situated on the corner of Swapo Road and Adelaide Tambo Avenue, neither name immediately evocative for this English-Indian-Zulu suburb. One of our guests reminded the table that this street renaming frenzy had peaked five-plus years ago and hence the former neutrally named “Broadway” and “Kensington Drive” had been ditched in favour of something far more in keeping with the struggle and the supremacy of the ANC.
My Durban North reunion was in between the first bout of stage four electricity blackouts in February and the current load-shedding-without-end shuttering the country right now, and blighting its economic prospects and much else besides.
My thought then was how much easier the local and national governments find it to attend to the surface bling and eye-catching appeal of so-called transformation, such as changing names, and ignore the much harder and necessary work of doing the essentials. Such as maintaining working power stations and keeping the trains running, or at least not running four hours late. Indeed yesterday, the chairperson of Eskom, Jabu Mabuza, admitted that the utility had “neglected the maintenance of power stations for a decade”. And the management was too busy looting and “transforming” to notice or care.
The whip-smart Financial Times correspondent in SA, Joseph Cottterill, offered an intriguing and painful thought on Cyril Ramaphosa’s four-hour-delayed train journey to Pretoria on Monday: “It’s another episode in an ANC election campaign that seems oddly focused on cataloguing its governance failures in lurid detail.”
And there are still 50 days to go on the election trail, and the Ramaphosa campaign will be spoilt for choice.
Chances are, despite the appeal of its name, a future stop will not include the Kusile power station near Witbank. It too underwent a name change from Bravo to the more alluring “the dawn has come” (Kusile in Ndebele). Perhaps a while ago, CR’s campaign planners thought of taking his campaign train there, given the linguistic proximity it has to the “new dawn” era he promised. But with the plunge into blackouts and darkness it would be a painful reminder that the key advantage of daybreak in SA these days, is that you are spared from stumbling about in the dark.
Kusile, along with its twin Medupi, were the mega power stations that were conceived, corruption aside, to both stop the blackouts which started more than a decade ago, and take the load off the load-shedding elderly power stations elsewhere. But that was then: today they are rebukeful monuments to the catastrophic failure of the planning abilities and execution shortfalls of the ANC-led state. They generate a small percentage of the 9,600MW they were designed to produce. And in Cotterril’s assessment, which he offered under the headline “South Africa battling to keep the lights on”, they are the greatest failing of all Eskom’s omnishambolic failures. There is a long list here: equipment faults, design flaws, and frequent tripping out of the power units. To this gloomy catalogue can be added the delays in coming fully on stream (five years) and the cost overruns (from about R150bn to R300bn plus).
Back to Cyril’s slow train: metaphors in politics are both helpful and, in his case, very dangerous. If he had whistled through his train journey on Monday in the scheduled 45 minutes, he could have showcased it as a double signal: government provides safe and efficient transport to workers who, because of the legacy of spatial apartheid, are obliged to live far from the centres of commerce and industry. And he could also have highlighted the aspects of the ANC manifesto which planned to overcome these distortions. Instead, he became the butt of cartoons and comments heralding the broken slow train going nowhere fast.
Theresa May, the hapless Brexit-trapped British prime minister, is currently reprising the famous Eagles line from Hotel California: You can check out ... but you can never leave. And when she brought again her unloved Brexit departure deal to the House of Commons last week, she was disabled by a coughing fit which rendered her more or less speechless. Cartoonists and commentators pounced on the metaphorical significance of her loss of voice symbolising her draining authority. And the vote, once again, went against her.
When another stage four load-shedding hit SA on Sunday, I found myself far away in Swakopmund, Namibia. This historic town is surrounded on three sides by the Namib Desert, and the rolling waters of the Atlantic Ocean on its west. Despite the truly dreadful legacy here of German colonialism, including the massacre of the Herero people, the town takes much pride in its historical heritage and houses extraordinary and extant examples of 19th-century architecture. There is even a Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse and, more balefully, a German statue to the Herero killings (though daubed with red paint). I didn’t sight a Swapo Avenue, or indeed any street named in honour of the ANC, but plenty are named for struggle heroes here.
I asked our engaged young guide and driver about these living, uncensored monuments to the past. “Well, its part of our history, the good and the bad,” he said. But then he switched the tables and asked me about the electricity crisis in SA. I offered some explanations along the lines of this article.
He countered: “It’s difficult for us to understand. We buy our electricity from Eskom and there is no problem here with blackouts, and it is much cheaper than in SA.”
Perhaps our northern neighbour can teach us a thing or two. And maybe they were more concerned with keeping the lights on and the trains running and other core essentials of governance. Not just the bling.