Ferial Haffajee: I’ve got the Blackout Blues
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
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Blackouts bring out the worst
possible memories for me. In 2008, when power cuts gripped South Africa, I
remember being at a friend’s house party one evening.
At about 2am, I drove home
through Johannesburg’s wet and dark streets. It felt like the end of days.
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Power cuts do that more than
any other example of a weakened or failing state, because everything stops in a
cascade of chaos: traffic lights don’t work snarling the lines; shops close;
business tanks; consumers follow. Confidence goes from Stage 1 to Stage 4
faster than the Hendrina power station.
The storm that night in 2008
had been mean, and trees lay strewn across streets. The traffic lights were not
working; smoke rose off the streets. Chinua Achebe’s defining novel Things Fall Apart felt prophetic.
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ANC president Jacob Zuma was
about to become the country’s president. And Eskom was the most crushing
example of how badly the governing ANC ran the state; a tactical and strategic
liberation movement was turning out to be an only so-so party of government.
The party’s deployed cadres
had awarded its own company, Chancellor House, a substantial slice of the
building of two new coal-fired power stations – Kusile and Medupi – by awarding
Hitachi Power Africa big deals. Hitachi had cleverly partnered with Chancellor
House. A senior ANC member of the national executive committee, Mohammed Valli
Moosa, was also Eskom chairperson at the time, and he swotted away allegations
Meanwhile, journalists were
attempting to give Zuma the benefit of the doubt, but those of us who had
covered the politician before, knew it was not going to be a great time. Indeed,
the next nine years saw a descent into a kleptocracy that meets every one of
the descriptions about such eras.
READ: #Budget2019: Moody’s likely to downgrade SA if govt takes on Eskom debt – PwC
Fast forward 11 years and we
are in the middle of a blackout season as depleting as the 2008 cuts. On
Wednesday, Public Enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan planted the blame
squarely at the doors of Medupi and Kusile for the ballooning costs of both
equal Eskom’s debt bill.
Medupi is running at a bill
of R208bn; Kusile at R239bn. Eskom’s bone-crushing debt is at over R400bn and
rising every day. You do the maths. In December, Gordhan ordered a forensic
probe into what caused the costs to shoot up so high; but two months on, it’s
not out yet.
After the Chancellor House
deal, there was no stopping the crony corruption at Eskom. It went on to become
a feeding trough for successive mafia networks. The best-known now is the Gupta
family’s, which saw coal and media contracts go to interests aligned to Zuma. Eskom’s
talented executives like former CEO Brian Molefe and its former head of
generation, Matshela Koko, became ensnared by the corruption networks.
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Eskom’s executives were so
busy eating, that maintenance of the systems that keep the lights on went to
the dogs. The fleet of 18 power stations are in a condition of “distinct
neglect”, said Gordhan, as he briefed Parliament on Wednesday.
Because the plants need
urgent maintenance, Eskom banked on Medupi and Kusile’s units to provide the
reserve margins needed. That didn’t happen, so nine years after the first dodgy
contracts were awarded, we are back to where we were at the start of the era of
I don’t know about you, but
after last week’s state of the nation address, I came out hopeful about our
We are in an era of high
truth where, if you want, you can dip into one of three commissions of inquiry
running concurrently to understand what happened in the decade of plunder and
theft. There is reformism in the air everywhere and especially at the
But three days later, the
blackouts arrived in an announcement from Eskom on Sunday. You could almost
hear the national atmosphere turn from tentative hope to the dark despair and
churlishness that rolling power cuts can embed in us.
Ten years on from the last
set, the mood is made more quickly viral by social media, which was only
tentative in 2008. It feels again like Things
Fall Apart. I drove home through Johannesburg’s wet and dark streets the
other night, and it felt like the end of days. Again.