Brace yourself

2009-11-13 00:00

WHEN all else fails, pull and wave a big race card. Welcome to “Raceland”. And good luck, because you are going to need it.

We all know how rife racism is in this country. But for blacks to cry racism every time incompetence is exposed, is not only embarrassing but sets a very bad precedent.

Eskom chief executive Jacob Maroga seems to have been successful enough in using the race card for himself, even if temporarily, so he can hang on at the helm at Eskom.

But this, I guarantee, will end in darkness, literally in darkness.

If you think the horrible power outages of January 2008 were bad, brace yourself for the worst — complete darkness.

Bobby Godsell is gone. Yes, he is gone.

The former chairman of the Eskom board made it clear this week that the government, Eskom’s sole shareholder, had failed to stand by the board when it accepted Maroga­’s verbal offer to resign on October 28.

“In these circumstances, and with the best interest of the organisation in mind, the course of action­ seems to me to resign,” he said in a statement.

I would have done the same. If there is no shareholder support at a critical time like this, what option did Godsell have? Godsell, like other board members, had an unfettered duty to carry out his mandate without interference. If his independence is fettered, then what’s left?

Some blacks say “good riddance to the racist”. Is Godsell a racist? I have no idea. But what I know is that he is a highly experienced business leader and a competent and credible businessman.

Eskom, a public enterprise of national strategic importance, is, on the other hand, in serious jeopardy. Its impending collapse will threaten the security of the country in all spheres and levels of our lives as citizens. Without a properly functioning Eskom, we are all doomed and a series of events leading up to Godsell’s resignation are a testament that Maroga is not competent enough to lead a 21st-century power utility.

Let’s examine the facts.

During his tenure, Godsell expressed concern over a number of operational gaps at the utility which were highlighted at more than a dozen previous board meetings.

These gaps show that senior management was way out of its depth to deal with these problems, which demonstrated that work was either­ incomplete or late.

He also expressed his concern at the capacity of senior management to act quickly and effectively with regard to the serious challenges facing Eskom.

But energy consultant Susan Olsen’s explosive report is the one that broke the camel’s back. The report has since been leaked to opposition political parties as well as to the press, including the Mail & Guardian.

According to the Mail & Guardian, Olsen warned Maroga six months before the electricity crisis of January 2008 that Eskom’s coal division would collapse under its own weight unless serious steps were taken.

It has been reported that the main reason for the board’s dissatisfaction with Maroga is his handling of Olsen’s report, with claims that he did little to act on it. This failure is alleged to have resulted in the electricity crisis, which cost the country about R2 billion a day.

Maroga responded by firing Olsen from her consultancy position after she presented the report­.

According to Olsen, Eskom’s coal mismanagement is one of the reasons the country was plunged into darkness in 2008.

Olsen, in her report, talks of a company in deep trouble. Why did two of Eskom’s coal-fired stations not have long-term supply contracts and why had this status quo been allowed to continue for several years?

According to the Mail & Guardian, Olsen wanted to know why the existing contracts for the other eight coal-fired stations had not been negotiated to meet burn requirements­.

She queried how Eskom had failed to foresee and solve the coal supply crisis. She also pointed out that Eskom was not equipped for the challenges of the international coal market to secure coal and cope with domestic industrial demand­.

Her report went further and expressed concern about the ability of staff at Eskom’s generation primary energy (GPE) unit, citing their lack of experience in and failure to grasp the basics of commercial negotiations.

Confronted with these questions, Maroga cried racism.

For crying out loud, Olsen’s document contains hard facts about the lack of operational expertise at Eskom, and the fact that Maroga­ was not capable of leading this sensitive and complex business.

Maroga’s supporters have been complaining that Godsell behaved like an executive chairman. I do not think he did. I think he kept very close to the business out of concern that there was a lot to do and out of commitment to correct the wrongs.

After all, Eskom is a complicated business. It needs a chairman who is going to be close. Godsell could not afford to chair meetings only once every quarter. There was a lot to correct. He had to be there more often. And he did it out of love for his country.

This notion that every failing black man or woman will hide his or her incompetence behind the cloak of racism is rubbish.

Stop it. —

• Sipho Ngcobo is the former deputy editor of Business Report and ex-managing editor of Enterprise Magazine. He has also written for such publications as the Sunday Times, the World Paper in Boston and was employed by the New York Times Group in the United States between 1989 and 1991.

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