President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address attracted a vast amount of commentary, almost all of it negative and cynical. For a country at boiling point, the event was watched not only for a sense of what his government intends to do, but for a sense of empathy with the frustrations of the public. As a country, we place a large premium on the latter. It is one thing to be seen as incompetent, another to be seen as out of touch. We seem generally to prefer incompetence.

Nothing of course encapsulates the national mood better than disenchantment with the power supply, and ‘load-shedding’.

This has come to be almost defining of the country’s outlook because it has been with us intermittently (and with growing severity in recent years) since 2007, because it places a massive strain on everyday life, because it has crippled our economic prospects, and because there is no end in sight.

In January, the response of the government and the Presidency was to cancel Ramaphosa’s trip to Davos to attend the World Economic Forum. The  response to come out of SONA involved declaring a State of Disaster. The President’s stay-at-home served almost entirely to communicate a sense of caring and urgency. A State of Disaster does the same – and makes things worse.

The broad contours of the issue are well known. South Africa does not produce enough power; its existing power infrastructure is failing, so we are not able to benefit from its (theoretical) potential; mismanagement, corruption and criminality have savaged Eskom over more than a decade, so turning things around is a herculean task in the face of entrenched interests that have thrived off the dysfunction; and the introduction of new sources of power has been beset by delays, if not outright hostility.

The rudiments of a solution should therefore be clear: get Eskom in order and incentivise whatever new power is to be had, subject only to essential health, safety and environmental conditions. Easier said than done no doubt, if only because these would be inherently complex challenges even under ideal conditions. But our conditions are by no means ideal, and a good part of this stems from choices consciously made and from consequences that were both entirely predictable and clearly evident in operation.

The most obvious of these was that Eskom has been used as a vehicle for goals – in some quarters, ‘developmental’ goals – other than power provision. When goods and services must be procured on criteria other than price and quality, be assured that this comes with costs that will be borne by someone. When the procurer is an institution critical for maintaining a modern economy, it is society as a whole that will bear these costs. Last year, Eskom Board member Mteto Nyati came in for a great deal of criticism for pointing out the damage that the non-economic demands on Eskom’s procurement spend – such as current ‘empowerment’ and localisation policy – were having on the utility.

Not that this had much impact. Eskom board chair Mpho Makwana commented: ‘As the Eskom leadership collective we place a high premium on our role as a catalyst for transformation and empowerment. Eskom continues to be the largest supporter of black-owned suppliers who are positively contributing value to the production of electricity and we promote black industrialisation as a deliberate approach to supply chain management, localisation and industrialisation in our value chain.’

Makwana’s position is substantively that of the government and of President Ramaphosa. And perhaps it would be feasible in a prosperous and high-growth environment. As it stands, any additional quantum of costs imposed on Eskom is an additional burden imposed on the economy. Whether or not Eskom is acting as a ‘catalyst’ for the firms it is supporting, it is failing to act as the ‘catalyst’ for the economy that it needs to be.

Much the same could be said for thinking around employment and skills: existing polices around racial preferencing remain determinedly pursued, even in the face of a debilitating skills shortage.

Ultimately, these much-abused, race-based measures need to be done away with.

If there is no willingness to change course, it begs the question as to what there was for the President to cancel his sojourn in Switzerland to ‘deal’ with last month, or what ramping up government discretionary powers would achieve now? Indeed, several commentators have questioned whether any sort of meaningful plan to extricate South Africa from this crisis exists. They have a point. The latest news is that attention will be paid to a number of underperforming power stations. It may seem jarring that something so obvious is punted as a solution – but then, it’s all of a piece with a system that neglected something so obvious as maintaining the fleet.

A State of Disaster makes a statement about the severity with which the government views the situation. That’s well and good, but offers no solutions. In fact, it established the conditions to abuse the crisis rather like profiteers and control-mongers exploited the COVID pandemic. Digging South Africa out of the hole it finds itself in would be an opportunity for corruption with few peers – and given the fact that an election awaits around the corner (along with a sense that the enrichment prospects may be drawing to an end) the incentive for exploitation is large indeed.

We should bear this in mind as the coming months unfold. Perhaps the audience at Davos, less concerned with the optics of domestic leadership and more with the substance of effective governance, might have pressed the message that performative expressions of concern would not substitute for proper action. Neither does a State of Disaster.

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending...

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