Ministerial task team AWOL at Parly meeting as council debt to Eskom swells

(Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)
(Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)

Ministers who serve as members of an inter-ministerial Eskom task team were absent at a scheduled Parliamentary committee meeting on Tuesday, where debt owed by municipalities to the the cash-strapped power utility was discussed. 

The task team, which was established in 2017 to develop and lead interventions into the crisis of municipalities owing Eskom billions of rands, was set to meet with with Standing Committee on Public Accounts. Debt owed by municipalities to Eskom has grown by R5.2bn since April.

Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma chairs the task team. Other ministers include Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni and Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan.

According to documentation from Eskom, the debt owned to it from municipalities stands at R25.1bn as of September this year.

While delegations from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Eskom and the South African Local Government Association were present, the Tuesday morning meeting kicked off without a minister in sight.

Director General of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dan Matshitsho, told Scopa that Dlamini-Zuma offered her apologies as she is attending a Cabinet subcommittee meeting.

The apology did not sit well with Scopa chair Mkhuleko Hlengwa, who noted that the department had previously communicated to the committee that the minister would attend but request to leave the meeting early.

"I'm battling to understand why there was this U-turn. I would like to understand the reasons for this to-ing and fro-ing. This is something we have been dealing with before, so I am not surprised," said Hlengwa.

'Their conduct tells us to jump off a cliff'

A staff member from the Department of Public Enterprises said Gordhan was part of President Cyril Ramaphosa's delegation visiting Russia. Members of the Eskom delegation, meanwhile, said Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza and its CFO Calib Cassim were also out of the country.

Scopa member and Democratic Alliance MP Alf Lees took a dim view of the task team's absence, saying it undermined executive accountability and procedure.

"The task team and the minister were given ample opportunity to update the committee. This is a crisis. The debt has gone up some R5bn in a short period and it is unacceptable that the minister chairing the task team aimed at addressing it simply chooses not to come here," said Lees.

Hlengwa said the members of the task team chose bad time to skip their obligations to Parliament, as it appeared that Eskom and South Africa’s energy security were caught in a storm.

"Load shedding returned last week. The project manager at Medupi has resigned. The conduct of the task team tells us to jump off the nearest cliff. That simply should not be allowed. To say I am annoyed is an understatement and to say I am angry is an understatement," said Hlengwa.

Scopa member and Economic Freedom Fighters MP Ntombovuyo Mente said the appropriate response would be to get a correspondence from all the delegations of their travel and accommodation costs, refer them to the leader of government business so that those offices could cover them for Parliament.

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