Eskom overshadowed African National Congress’ (ANC) January 8 statement in Kimberley this past weekend, as the fallout from continued rolling blackouts played themselves out on the political space. ANC President, Cyril Ramaphosa – who is also the country’s president – was at pains to assure South Africans that his government is doing its best to get the power utility to deliver as it should.
He said part of achieving that is speeding up the introduction of new electricity generation by independent power producers. “We must also find new sources of energy such as gas and intermediate energy that can be brought on ships. We must complete the measures undertaken to ensure the financial and operational stability of Eskom. We will accelerate the process of transforming Eskom into an effective and reliable electricity supplier that can operate in an open, competitive energy sector,” Ramaphosa said.
What also made Ramaphosa’s third January 8 statement challenging was the widespread public criticism of the Eskom Board and Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, in the days leading up to the ANC’s 108th birthday celebrations. With Deputy President, David Mabuza, telling the media that the Eskom Board and Gordhan misled Ramaphosa about when loadshedding would continue in the new year, and ANC ally the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) calling for Gordhan to be reshuffled or fired, tensions reached higher levels when Eskom board chair, Jabu Mabuza, resigned on Friday. “I apologise for the continued inconvenience to South Africans as a result of rolling load shedding. I therefore take full responsibility for this unfortunate situation and accordingly resign as chairperson and member of the Eskom board,” Ramaphosa quoted Mabuza’s resignation letter as saying.
The president also used his speech to rule out any possibility of privatising Eskom, warning anyone “who think we will sell Eskom” that his government was instead going to stabilise the state-owned company and keep it in state hands. “We are going to strengthen Eskom to function optimally and provide uninterrupted electricity to our people and the rest of the continent. Eskom is the biggest company in South Africa and we will not allow it to fail, it cannot fail, we will not allow that,” said Ramaphosa. Mabuza’s resignation was widely welcomed, with many saying Gordhan should follow suit as he had been part of decisions made at Eskom including key appointments.
Government was widely criticised when it announced Mabuza as board chairperson, with most of the critics arguing he was a former taxi operator with no understanding of power generation. This much Mabuza has admitted during several press conferences in which he battled with technical jargon as he tried to explain what had led to load shedding. While welcoming Mabuza’s resignation, the Democratic Alliance has defended Gordhan arguing whatever decisions he made were on the basis of directives from cabinet and probably Ramaphosa himself.
“Minister Gordhan has been acting on directives of cabinet and of course the president. What he can do for now is come clean as to who said and did what for us to get where we are”, said DA Shadow Minister of Public Enterprises Calib Cachalia. Both the National Union of Mine Workers and the National Metalworkers Union of South Africa have called for Gordhan’s head saying he’s responsible for most of the problems at Eskom. Knives out for Gordhan He may not have attended the ANC’s anniversary celebrations in Kimberley, but Gordhan was the talk of town, with several influential voices there calling for his head. In its message of support, Cosatu through its president Zingiswa Losi, said workers were happy to see Mabuza leaving Eskom. “It (Mabuza’s resignation) has come at the time we have been long calling for it. Since August last year, Cosatu has called for the entire board of Eskom to step down.
We are saying to the rest of the board, do the honourable thing and tender your resignation and follow suit,” Losi said. Cosatu’s affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), said Gordhan needs to fall on his sword. The union told Newsnote in an interview that the minister had been part of all decisions taken by Eskom for the longest period and therefore needs to take responsibility. “We have always been clear that he must go. We can never solve the Eskom situation with him playing a leading role because he has failed,” NUM said.
The National Metalworkers Union of South Africa (NUMSA) has also called for Gordhan to be sacked. Both the NUM and Numsa, rivals themselves, organise thousands of Eskom workers. In December the EFF called on all left formations to join it on the picket lines as it seeks to challenge attempts to sell state owned entities.
“Pravin wants to sell our state owned entities and the plan is to start with Eskom. He is causing problems there in order to collapse it so that him and his friends can get it easily,” said EFF president Julius Malema. The South African Communist Party – another ally of the ANC - had said in an interview with Newsnote that it would join the EFF at the picket lines as it too was opposed to privatisation.
Gordhan is seen by many as the face of a faction within the ANC and private capital that want state owned entities privatised. He has never denied this and has instead actively advocated for the unbundling of Eskom – now government’s adopted position - that would see the power utility divided into three smaller entities that will operate independently from each other. Gordhan could not be reached for comment.