Inside Labour: My seven-year itch - Eskom’s denialism

2015-03-31 06:00

‘Using statistical sleight of hand and a smokescreen of misleading ­rhetoric, Eskom and the government have created the impression that they are not responsible for the energy crisis; that a combination of wasteful consumers and ­forces beyond their control created the mess we are in. And that mess, in turn, justifies the massive increase in tariffs that has now been agreed by the National Energy Regulator.”

The paragraph above applies directly to the events of last week. However, it was published in this column nearly seven years ago, indicating how little things have changed – and how it is that the citizens usually end up paying the bills.

Denialism, along with apparent ignorance of history, lies at the root of this. Take the comments made last weekend by President Jacob Zuma at the reburial in Ventersdorp of the remains of struggle icon JB Marks.

President Zuma implied that the reason for the crises we face was the lack of unity in the tripartite alliance. He called for alliance ­leaders to stage a week-long bosberaad to sort out their differences.

This was a classic example of a smokescreen of misleading rhetoric. Especially since President Zuma used the example of Marks, once president of the African Mine Workers’ Union, which staged the great strike of 1946.

Marks was a leading member of the ANC, the SA Communist Party and, in 1966 and 1969, played a major role in holding ­together an ANC that appeared on the brink of fragmentation.

He was able to do so because he had rank and file backing; he talked, listened to and persuaded the majority to support his position. This approach is the antithesis of calling together bureaucracies to do a deal behind bosberaad doors.

In the conditions of today, it could be ­argued that Marks would have supported the proposal – backed by the Cosatu constitution – that a special delegate congress of the federation be staged to hear all the arguments and to decide democratically on the outcome.

But such consultation is extremely rare. And it certainly has not applied in the Eskom debacle. Nor did it apply with Sasol, a former state-owned enterprise that was sold once it became profitable.

Sasol is, in fact, a good local example of an efficient state-owned enterprise. The fuel-from-oil project started more than 50 years ago when Sasol fuel was much more expensive than traditional oil-based fuel.

So it was the citizens who paid the difference – with much of the funding coming from the fuel levy. In other words, every South African paid in one way or another.

But as the price of Sasol production steadily fell (probably to less than $20 per barrel equivalent), the price of conventional oil rose. By 1979, Sasol was profitable – and was ­privatised.

Eskom, at much the same time, was hailed as being the efficient producer of a surplus of “the cheapest electricity in the world”. So deals were struck for the cut-price supply of electricity to, among others, the most energy-intensive industrial processes in the world – aluminium smelters.

The company that benefited most from this apparent largesse was Billiton, owner of those great energy guzzlers in KwaZulu-Natal, the Bayside and Hillside smelters.

But Billiton – now BHP Billiton – is, in fact, the international face of what used to be the Afrikaner ­economic empowerment vehicle, Gencor.

When the Afrikaner nationalists seized ­parliamentary power in 1948, an Afrikaner economic empowerment deal saw General Mining become Gencor. And Gencor’s executive chair, Derek Keys, became the finance minister after the 1994 transition.

At that time, more than $1?billion was ­released to Gencor to buy British-based ­Billiton. Three months later, Keys resigned – and emerged as a chairperson of a Billiton ­division based on the island of Jersey.

These are just some of the realities that are ­important to interrogate in order to understand where we are now.

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