Ferial Haffajee: I've got the Blackout Blues

Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

Blackouts bring out the worst possible memories for me. In 2008, when power cuts gripped South Africa, I remember being at a friend's house party one evening.

At about 2am, I drove home through Johannesburg's wet and dark streets. It felt like the end of days.

Power cuts do that more than any other example of a weakened or failing state, because everything stops in a cascade of chaos: traffic lights don't work snarling the lines; shops close; business tanks; consumers follow. Confidence goes from Stage 1 to Stage 4 faster than the Hendrina power station.

The storm that night in 2008 had been mean, and trees lay strewn across streets. The traffic lights were not working; smoke rose off the streets. Chinua Achebe's defining novel Things Fall Apart felt prophetic.

ANC president Jacob Zuma was about to become the country's president. And Eskom was the most crushing example of how badly the governing ANC ran the state; a tactical and strategic liberation movement was turning out to be an only so-so party of government.

The party's deployed cadres had awarded its own company, Chancellor House, a substantial slice of the building of two new coal-fired power stations – Kusile and Medupi – by awarding Hitachi Power Africa big deals. Hitachi had cleverly partnered with Chancellor House. A senior ANC member of the national executive committee, Mohammed Valli Moosa, was also Eskom chairperson at the time, and he swotted away allegations of cronyism.

Meanwhile, journalists were attempting to give Zuma the benefit of the doubt, but those of us who had covered the politician before, knew it was not going to be a great time. Indeed, the next nine years saw a descent into a kleptocracy that meets every one of the descriptions about such eras.

Fast forward 11 years and we are in the middle of a blackout season as depleting as the 2008 cuts. On Wednesday, Public Enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan planted the blame squarely at the doors of Medupi and Kusile for the ballooning costs of both equal Eskom's debt bill.

Medupi is running at a bill of R208bn; Kusile at R239bn. Eskom's bone-crushing debt is at over R400bn and rising every day. You do the maths. In December, Gordhan ordered a forensic probe into what caused the costs to shoot up so high; but two months on, it's not out yet.

After the Chancellor House deal, there was no stopping the crony corruption at Eskom. It went on to become a feeding trough for successive mafia networks. The best-known now is the Gupta family's, which saw coal and media contracts go to interests aligned to Zuma. Eskom's talented executives like former CEO Brian Molefe and its former head of generation, Matshela Koko, became ensnared by the corruption networks.

Eskom's executives were so busy eating, that maintenance of the systems that keep the lights on went to the dogs. The fleet of 18 power stations are in a condition of "distinct neglect", said Gordhan, as he briefed Parliament on Wednesday.

Because the plants need urgent maintenance, Eskom banked on Medupi and Kusile's units to provide the reserve margins needed. That didn't happen, so nine years after the first dodgy contracts were awarded, we are back to where we were at the start of the era of high kleptocracy.

I don't know about you, but after last week's state of the nation address, I came out hopeful about our beloved country.

We are in an era of high truth where, if you want, you can dip into one of three commissions of inquiry running concurrently to understand what happened in the decade of plunder and theft. There is reformism in the air everywhere and especially at the parastatals.

But three days later, the blackouts arrived in an announcement from Eskom on Sunday. You could almost hear the national atmosphere turn from tentative hope to the dark despair and churlishness that rolling power cuts can embed in us.

Ten years on from the last set, the mood is made more quickly viral by social media, which was only tentative in 2008. It feels again like Things Fall Apart. I drove home through Johannesburg's wet and dark streets the other night, and it felt like the end of days. Again.

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