Inside Labour: State must bite the Eskom crisis bullet

2015-03-23 15:00

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa persists in referring to the mess that is Eskom as “a challenge” – as he did in his question-and-answer session in Parliament this week.

But the situation at Eskom is perhaps the biggest crisis to face our fragile, nonracist democracy, especially given the global economic climate.

Should – as now seems likely – more widespread load shedding and even national blackouts occur, commerce and industry will be sorely hit. And while householders can make do with candles for light and gas or even wood for cooking, mines, factories and furnaces have no substitute. A dearth of power means a crippling blow to the economy.

Such a blow would cause considerable collateral damage, with workers the major sufferers. Some national capital may be hurt, but by and large, capital knows no boundaries and can – and will – flee to more energy-secure climes, leaving behind an untold number of jobless people.

We have already seen jobs shed as a result of the erratic power supply.

This was something raised last weekend in Durban by labour federation Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Because, although government would never use the term, the energy situation is dire.

Complicating matters is that critical local government elections are scheduled for next year. The last thing the governing party wants is to be held responsible for the Eskom debacle. Yet this is clearly where the major responsibility lies, and continued denial will merely make matters worse.

However, Ramaphosa is correct in saying there is “light at the end of the tunnel”. Except that it is a very long and potentially very dark tunnel. This means the situation is so serious this is no time to play the blame game.

Here is a wake-up call not only to government, but to the labour movement as the professed representatives of all sellers of labour.

But President Jacob Zuma has already laid the blame on apartheid, a justification also mentioned in passing by Ramaphosa this week. Their argument is that a major cause of the crisis was the massively successful introduction of electricity to previously deprived households.

However, while there has certainly been a commendable roll-out, Eskom’s figures reveal these households comprise only a fraction of the electricity demanded and consumed nationally. Mines and the industrial sector consume roughly 60%.

These figures also reveal that residential users, no matter where they are, pay at least double what most of the industrial sector pays and, in some cases, three times as much. Audits undertaken by the power utility reveal that the bulk of the billions of rands in unpaid electricity bills is owed by the business sector.

These are all points taken up by the labour movement. However, cautions and alternative positions put forward since at least 1996 have gone unheeded. Take, for example, labour’s warnings about gambling on developing a pebble-bed modular reactor, a technology already discarded by Germany. In 2008, the combined labour movement bewailed that R15?billion had been wasted on this project.

It is time for government to accept responsibility and be honest about the seriousness of the energy problem and the harsh measures that will be necessary to rectify it. This at a time when what has been labelled the “second industrial revolution” continues apace, shedding millions of jobs.

Both these factors highlight the need for the labour movement to hold government accountable and put forward, proactively, new policies. But this it can only do as a truly independent body acting in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population who sell their labour to survive.

As long as government refuses to bite the bullet, the problems will continue.

The same applies to unions. By remaining compromised by association – directly or indirectly – with employers, state or private, or acting as bureaucratic stepping stones to power and privilege for leaders, they too will fail.

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