Ramaphosa's SONA glow turns to load shedding darkness

Should power blackouts continue, it will be the single most visible – and forceful – reminder of governance ineptitude and can result in a shedding of votes for the governing party, writes Daniel Silke.

It's not quite the week that President Ramaphosa was expecting when he rose to deliver his 2019 State of the Nation Address (SONA) last Thursday. 

Whilst he impressed amongst the most jaded and cynical observers last week, the following seven days have seen him, and the ANC, being forced on the defensive as crippling power blackouts and the broader Eskom meltdown reach into every home across the country.

With little apparent warning, Ramaphosa's lofty intentions of kickstarting the economy suffered a severe credibility setback – or in his own words, a "reality check" on the depths of dysfunction within the state apparatus. 

From a communications perspective, this last week was an unmitigated disaster for the ANC – and Ramaphosa as well. Reeling under mixed messages of sabotage from his own party to blaming state capture, skills loss and infrastructure flaws, the message was one of total confusion. 

To cap it all, the president's own admission of his "shock and anger" left an impression of a leader caught unaware of one of the biggest economic crises to hit the country in recent times.

As a result, everyone scrambled to look as though they were in charge. Pravin Gordhan got caught up in it attempting to do the impossible which was to predict how long the crisis would last. Then Gordhan announced that a select group of "two or three" Italian engineers would arrive to assess the damage. It was all pretty desperate stuff.

As if this was not enough, a second front of deep concern set it. As part of his SONA, President Ramaphosa announced the unbundling of Eskom into three separate units. 

This 'unbundling' was immediately seized upon by Cosatu and the NUM as tantamount to the wholesale privatisation of the parastatal. Within hours, thousands of union members took to the streets and the NUM even suggested that their support for the ANC in the May elections could not be guaranteed.

Within a week therefore, the sheer magnitude of the Eskom disaster has made this the biggest issue at the start of the May election campaign. And, should the unpleasantness of load shedding itself extend close to election day itself, the ANC stands to suffer an electoral bleed – something that the opposition parties were seemingly unable to accomplish only a week earlier.

Simply put, the ANC's clear priority right now is to stop the load shedding rot. At least until after the election. Load shedding represents in very real terms a plethora of problems. It's graft and corruption, hapless management, oversight failure, energy policy ineptitude, cadre deployment deficiencies and moribund state control – all rolled into one. 

And, it enters every voter's home each and every day – sometimes even twice a day.

The glow of Ramaphosa's SONA has therefore been replaced with the darkness of power-cuts. And, it's a real lifeline for both the DA and EFF seeking to punch holes in Ramaphosa's hitherto impenetrable gravitas and leadership credibility.

Should power blackouts continue, it will be the single most visible – and forceful – reminder of governance ineptitude and can result in a shedding of votes for the governing party. 

And, as if that is not enough, the ANC has to make some real tough choices on its SOE policies going forward. It now finds that any suggestion of increasing the role of the private sector is going to be met with vociferous union opposition. 

Unless Ramaphosa can work an internal miracle to take his unions with him, broader reforms (not just Eskom-related) will be a non-starter. If the ANC runs into an extended debate on this issue at election time, it can suffer once again from a stay-away vote that negatively impacted Jacob Zuma. Just this time it will be over policy rather than Zuma's problematic personality.

Already, Ramaphosa's response to his SONA address seemed less convincing and reassuring. Recovering from the somewhat opportunistic "sell-out" accusation from Terror Lekota, Ramaphosa seemed more ruffled. After all, the context for the glossy promises and lengthy wishlist had changed over the week. 

Simply put, you can pretty much forget about large-scale job creation, attracting sufficient foreign investment or forging a Fourth Industrial Revolution if you can't keep the lights on. Ultimately, power is the key and only energy security will allow a chance at economic revitalisation.

It is clearly a national emergency when electricity fails. It's also a national emergency when the governing party cryptically suggests sabotage is behind all of this. This is the stuff any opposition party would selfishly dream of to exploit the incumbent's malaise. The question now is whether the DA in particular will rise to the occasion with a rapid national campaign focused on this issue or fail to grasp the mettle. 

The ANC have only themselves to blame for this predicament some 80 days before a national election. If they can get the lights on soon, voters' memories may be short. But, if the technical and political issues persist, Ramaphosa's convincing mandate might be more like Zuma's lackluster 2016 performance. Everyone is now under pressure. 

- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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