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Opinion: Blame it on Jan Van Riebeeck

Opinion: Blame it on Jan Van Riebeeck

You know, it’s not easy being a South African columnist these days, now that the end is nigh and every intelligent South African agrees that President Zuma cannot run a spaza shop, never mind a country. And as for the ANC, even Supreme Commander Julius Malema agrees that they steal from the poor to give to themselves.

Way back when, when we still gave the ANC the benefit of the doubt because we really had no other choice, we listened to them boast about how they would bring light to every dark look and heat to every cold heart in the country. Fact is, the Bad Guy Government who preceded them was already doing a passable job with that, except that they were somewhat hamstrung by the ANC’s instructions (accompanied by threats of violence) that consumers were not to pay for the services they received.

And then, even while they were boasting about how they were going to spread electricity to every household, the ANC announced that they were closing down (“mothball” was the politically correct term they used) power stations. Those silly Nats were producing too much electricity. ANC cadres knew better. So they provided more electricity while producing less. That solved the problem.

It was easy to say ‘on the contrary’ to that.

Only one step remained: replacing experienced corporate leaders and electrical engineers with well-placed ANC cadres who received higher salaries and unheard-of bonuses for their loyalty to the leader. So, Eskom was fixed forever and the ANC could move on to other institutions broken by apartheid and Jan van Riebeeck, such as education, the police, the armed forces ...

After a few years of such power-supply bliss, the ANC was rudely awoken from last night’s Johnny Walker Black with noises of, hey, we need to do some maintenance here. The treacherous apartheid regime left us machinery that needs to be serviced, repaired and replaced every now and again. So the ANC said, no problem, blamed it on apartheid and did nothing.

Even when they were warned that South Africa would run out of sufficient power by around 2007 or 2008, the ANC said, ah, someone else’s problem by then, we’ll blame it on apartheid and do nothing.

So in 2008 the lights started going out. What has the ANC done since then? It is now 2015. Have they done anything useful to fix the problem? On the contrary.  Zuma still blames apartheid (“The energy problem is not our problem today. It is a problem of apartheid which we are resolving,” he said at last month’s ANC birthday bash) and ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe says it’s a good thing, caused by all the growth and development in South Africa.

As for the new capacity they are building, the deadlines come and go. No new capacity. Instead, existing capacity is regularly compromised. And maintenance is an exercise in damage control, one step ahead of disaster.

And disaster is what we are facing if load-shedding cannot keep up with our criminally neglected power grid, and the system shuts down completely.

This is not scare-mongering. Eskom has briefed Cabinet in December about the seriousness of the implications, City Press reports. When the US state of California had a total collapse in 2011, it took two weeks to restore power – in a first-world country. Two weeks without lights, hot water, cold water (depending on the pumps), cooking, electrical security fences, alarm systems, petrol from electric pumps, you name it.

Many businesses have generators now, running on diesel. How much diesel are they going to store? And how will they pump more? There goes the cold beer at your local pub; you’re in a disaster movie.

Should the same thing happen here, South Africa is likely to be in the dark longer than California. The problem is that you need enough power from outside to re-start the grid. Think of it as jump-starting your car, an official explained, where you need a good battery to assist the flat battery: “We don’t want to go there, because all our neighbours are buying from us. No one in Africa has 42000 MW of power.”

Reuters reported that Government was taking precautions. Pres Zuma and the members of his Cabinet would be brought to a safe, guarded place and soldiers would be deployed to national key points such as the Reserve Bank buildings. The United States embassy has a contingency plan in place; other organisations and businesses are sure to do the same.

A company CEO was quoted as saying, “We certainly have had meetings on the issue and God help us all if it does happen, but we can’t sit around doing nothing if the Eskom head himself has warned us.”

In the event, Eskom had to convince government that load shedding was not negotiable. This became necessary because, as reported, an official said senior ANC and Government leaders were unhappy about the repeated blackouts.

 Think about it. They are unhappy. Someone else is inconveniencing them. Stop this load-shedding nonsense. No responsibility taken or even noticed. And who do they think caused the problem and allowed it to ulcerate towards bursting point over the past 20 years? The oblivious, over-relaxed apparatchiks of the African National Congress?

On the contrary. Jan van Riebeeck did it.

DA leader Helen Zille has dutifully put forward a few proposals to prevent catastrophe. Regrettably Mr Jacob Zuma, following the lead of his predecessor, Mr Thabo Mbeki, is not likely to lower himself to the level of accepting sound advice.

Nevertheless, if disaster is to be prevented, one should start somewhere. And, just so you know there are alternative solutions to blaming apartheid, here are three of Zille’s proposals:

  • Terminate Eskom’s monopoly and open up the grid to independent power producers.
    There is no shortage of proposals from independent producers and these projects typically reach the production stage much quicker. Many can come online in 18 months to two years – as opposed to decades and hundreds of billions of rands for coal and nuclear.
  • A huge mind shift towards renewable energy – solar and wind.
    The program to procure private investment for renewable energy has produced 64 projects to date, totalling R120 bn. Since 2011 the price of wind power has dropped by 42% and that of solar power by 68%. Bio-gas looks even more promising.
    Energy from the first wind and solar projects is estimated to have saved diesel and coal to the value of R3.7 billion so far.
  • Dump the R1 trillion nuclear power deal.
    It will take way too long to produce anything useful. Also, it is vastly expensive and in the end the user will have to pay. Further skyrocketing electricity prices for decades to come will finally choke the SA economy to death.
    The deal also has every likelihood of transmogrifying into a second Arms Deal – bribery and corruption on a scale not indulged before.

And here is a PS: To be fair to ousted president Mbeki, he did later admit that the ANC got it wrong and was quoted as saying: "When Eskom said to the government, 'We think we need to invest more in terms of electricity generation,' we said no, not now, later. We were wrong; Eskom was right. We were wrong."

As for Zuma, maybe you have seen the Peanuts cartoon of Charlie Brown talking to a black kid. Black kid says, “I like being black.” Charlie replies, “That’s nice.” In the second panel Charlie says, “I like being white.” In the last panel the black kid replies, “Racist.”

Blame it on Van Riebeeck.

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