Budget 2021

South Africans aren’t only ones in dark as Eskom rescue awaited


As South Africa enters its third day of blackouts, investors are still awaiting word from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration on how it’s going to fix the ailing state power company.

Eskom, which has been without a permanent chief executive officer since August, is so cash-strapped it can’t service its debt and properly maintain aging plants. While the government has said plans to split Eskom into three operating units and reorganize its debt will be announced by the end of October, as will a new CEO, the cabinet didn’t mention the issues in a statement issued Thursday.

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The cabinet is due to meet again on October 31, two days after Finance Minister Tito Mboweni is scheduled to release his mid-term budget that should spell out how he’ll fund a three-year, R128bn bailout for Eskom. Investors are looking for greater urgency to be shown in getting the company, considered the biggest threat to Africa’s most industrialized economy, back on track.

“The main concern of all foreign investors is to fix Eskom,” said Colin Coleman, CEO of sub-Saharan Africa at Goldman Sachs. “We expect a phase of stabilization of Eskom in terms of governance, operations and finances to come in by the end of the year, following which a corporate restructure will start.”

Eskom has shed 2,000 megawatts of power from the grid since Wednesday. No more power cuts are expected after Friday, Chairman Jabu Mabuza told reporters late Thursday in Johannesburg.

Power shortages in the first quarter contributed to South Africa’s biggest economic contraction in a decade and the central bank expects the growth rate to reach just 0.6% this year - a forecast that may prove optimistic given the resumption of outages. The cuts could cost South Africa its last investment-grade credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service, which is due to deliver its next assessment on November 1.

Eskom has amassed R450bn of debt, and the government needs to work out a mechanism to take as much as 250 billion rand of that off the utility’s balance sheet, according to Coleman. Eskom’s management said in a presentation in August that one option was to move most of the debt onto the government’s balance sheet.

The bailouts allocated to Eskom will be sufficient to keep it afloat until the end of next year as work continues on its restructuring, Deputy President David Mabuza told lawmakers in Cape Town on Thursday. Measures to fund the aid include reprioritizing and curbing expenditure, including reducing the state wage bill, he said.

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe will on Friday unveil the Integrated Resource Plan, a blueprint that will set out the country’s planned energy mix for the next decade, but won’t address Eskom’s current woes.

“The power sector is very big, very complex, and the technology is changing quickly,” said Andrew Canter, chief investment officer at Cape Town-based Futuregrowth Asset Management, South Africa’s biggest specialist fixed-income money managers. “The fact that choices affect jobs and some industries, and that we start with a R450bn debt hole at Eskom, makes restructuring a challenge. I’d rather the government takes their time to gather research, get a vision and make an executable plan, rather than rush to half-answers.”

READ: Load shedding downgraded to stage 1 as problem units recover

Even if agreement can be reached on how to stabilize Eskom’s finances and overhaul its organizational structure, a quick fix to the nation’s immediate electricity crisis, which has brought businesses to a standstill and caused traffic snarl-ups, may remain elusive.

The company lost more than a quarter of its 47,000-megawatt generating capacity last weekend due to unplanned breakages, including boiler leaks and mechanical problems with a conveyor belt at its new Medupi coal-fired plant. Some of the leaks have already been fixed, while the conveyor belt should be repaired by the end of the month, according to Jan Oberholzer, Eskom’s chief operating officer.

“We have a maintenance plan that we are following, and we are actually ahead in terms of our planned maintenance targets,” he said by phone. “It will take 18 to 24 months to fix the system entirely.”

Mabuza, the Eskom chairman, said the utility had begun rebuilding emergency diesel and water supplies, which should ease constraints, but not resolve them.

The power cuts were needed “to balance supply and demand and protect the system from total collapse,” he said. “The system remains constrained and vulnerable.”

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