South Africans sitting in darkness can recall with grim irony that at the start of the century their state energy provider, Eskom, was named by the Financial Times as the world’s best power company. Yet even before that, in the late 1990s energy analysts were warning the country needed to invest in more power capacity if it wanted to keep the lights on.
Fast forward 25 years and Eskom’s ageing fleet of coal-fired power stations, which provide the great bulk of the country’s power, have been run into the ground and frequently break down. Rolling power cuts to stop the grid collapsing were first imposed as an emergency measure in 2008. They then became routine and eventually daily, reaching their worst levels ever in the past six months.
Two coal-fired power stations due to be completed by 2015 have both had major design faults and been immersed in corruption. Neither is yet in full operation.
Neglect has been compounded by corruption. Eskom is still trying to recover from years of embezzlement after it was looted by the friends and allies of former president Jacob Zuma.
The corruption has not gone away, according to Eskom’s most recent chief executive, André de Ruyter. He recently claimed graft is firmly embedded in the company and linked to the highest political levels. When he tried to clean it up, he alleges he was poisoned with cyanide in an unsuccessful assassination. He has now left the company and fled the country.
Kgosientso Ramokgopa, the newly appointed electricity minister, recently acknowledged that blackouts were cutting GDP by around 2.1 per cent and costing £22bn a year.
A brief improvement in supply in late March was greeted with cynicism. It was widely seen as an attempt to take the sting out of a threatened national protest against electricity shortages by the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) opposition party.
Overturning years of neglect and corruption to end load shedding, for example by allowing private generating companies to make up the power shortfall, will take years, analysts say. After years of hollow promises, many doubt whether the ruling party is up to the task, however.
One diplomat observes a sense of continuous drift among the government. “It doesn’t feel like a government which has either the authority or bandwidth to address the issues,” the diplomat says.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who many hoped would steady the ship and root out graft after the rampant corruption under his predecessor, Zuma, has disappointed many.
Amanda Gouws, professor of political science at Stellenbosch University, says the party appears unable to give people hope and Mr Ramaphosa had failed to grip the mounting problems.
She says: “I think the ANC is in a mess. It’s a deeply divided party and we have an absent president who just doesn’t take decisions unless he is forced to. She went on: “It’s really a powder keg at the moment and the ANC does not know how to steer this. They do not know what to do to give people hope.
“They are so self-interested and invested in their own political fiefdoms that they have no idea.”