Power fiasco

2008-03-22 00:00

The Eskom saga continues, becoming daily more complicated and bewildering. Not long after the electricity shortage became known, the organisation requested an 18% increase in tariffs and was granted 14%. Now, however, the demand for an increase has escalated despite the injection of R60 billion from the Treasury: the figure of 60% is being mentioned.

What’s especially alarming about this is that government, instead of stepping in and insisting on thrashing the matter out with Eskom before the economy is ruined, seems to be as baffled as the general public and is sitting about wringing its hands. Thus, a couple of days ago, senior ANC NEC member Jessie Duarte, usually confident on matters of policy, was heard on radio wondering what Eskom thought it was doing. Thus, also, the ANC this week called on Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin to approach Eskom, saying that the poor would be adversely affected by such a huge increase.

And so, as we prepare for a difficult winter — and, indeed, a difficult decade, electrically speaking — there are questions urgently requiring answers.

Why, since the government has prevented Eskom from making long-term decisions, has the government not intervened and taken a major role in the parastatal’s management, instead of letting it blunder on? How is it that this monstrous tariff demand was permitted to coincide with huge — and continuing — increases in fuel prices? Surely even the meanest intelligence must grasp that these two things in combination will, because they’ll generate increased prices across the board, send up inflation and, again, affect consumers, of whom the poorest will suffer most? Why has Eskom been permitted to take what almost seems to be a vindictive or punitive stance towards consumers and why does it continually send out mixed messages? For example, it speaks now of reducing numbers of power stations, now of recommissioning old ones, now of supplying every home in the country with electricity, now of curbing construction and other development. All the while we’re realising that even as we pay more and more for electricity, we’ll be getting less and less of it, and that we’ll actually be punished for not fulfilling certain electricity-use criteria.

The message hidden in all this is that Eskom is run by total incompetents, people drawing vast salaries and taking massive bonuses, yet unable to predict and work towards fulfilling this developing country’s power needs. Buried here, too, is the reason why the government is apparently hamstrung, unable to step in and devise short-term crisis management and longer-term strategies so that the country can continue its socio-economic growth into the future. So the final question here is, why, instead of dealing swiftly and decisively with the electricity crisis, is the government standing back and behaving just like another angry spectator?

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