South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa persists in referring to the mess that exists in power utility Eskom as “a challenge”. He did so in his Q & A session in parliament last week. But the situation at Eskom is perhaps the greatest crisis ever to face the country’s fragile, non-racist democracy, especially given the global economic climate.
Should — as now seems likely — more widespread load shedding and even national blackouts occur, commerce and industry will be sorely hit. And while householders can make do with candles for light and gas or even wood for cooking, mines, factories and furnaces have no substitute: a dearth of power means a crippling blow to the economy.
Such a crippling blow would cause considerable collateral damage, with workers the major sufferers. Some national capital may also be hurt but, by and large, capital knows no boundaries and can — and will — flee to more energy secure climes, leaving behind an untold number of jobless people.
We have already seen jobs shed as a result of the erratic power supply. This was something raised last weekend in Durban by Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Because, although government would never use the term, the energy position is dire.
Complicating matters is the fact that critical local government elections are scheduled for next year. The last thing the governing party wants is to be held responsible for the Eskom debacle. Yet this is clearly where the major responsibility lies and continued denial will merely make matters worse.
However, Ramaphosa is correct in saying there is “light at the end of the tunnel”. Except that it is a very long, and potentially very dark, tunnel. This means the situation is so serious that this is no time to play the blame game. Here is a wake-up call not only to government, but to the labour movement as the professed representatives of all sellers of labour.
But President Jacob Zuma has already laid the blame on apartheid, a justification also mentioned in passing by Ramaphosa this week. Their argument is that a major cause of the crisis is a massively successful roll-out of electricity to previously deprived households.
However, while there has certainly been a commendable roll-out, Eskom’s figures reveal that this is only a fraction of the electricity demanded and consumed nationally. Mines and the industrial sector consume roughly 60 per cent.
These figures also reveal that residential users, no matter where they are, pay at least double what most of the industrial sector pays and, in some cases, three times as much. Audits undertaken by the power utility also reveal that the bulk of the billions of rand in unpaid electricity bills is owed by the business sector. In fact, in often opaque deals, some of the largest consumers of power have been provided with electricity at below cost.
These are all points taken up by the labour movement. However, cautions and alternative positions put forward since at least 1996 have gone unheeded. Take, for example, labour’s warnings about gambling on developing a pebblebed modular nuclear reactor (PBMR), a technology already discarded by Germany. In 2008, the combined labour movement bewailed the fact that R15 billion had been wasted on this project.
It is time for the government to accept responsibility and be honest about the seriousness of the energy problem and the harsh measures that will be necessary to rectify it. This at a time when what has been labelled the “second industrial revolution” continues apace, shedding millions of jobs.
Not that government and the labour movement internationally should not have been aware of the consequences of what has also been called the “micro-chip revolution”. In 1983, the Russian born, US Nobel economics laureate, Wassily Leontief spelled it out very clearly. He noted that, just as the horse could never adjust to the invention of the tractor, so “the human worker will go the way of the horse”.
This fact, along with having to deal with the immediate problem of Eskom and energy, highlights the need for the labour movement to hold government accountable and to put forward, proactively, new policies to retain or even to grow jobs. But this they can only do as truly independent bodies acting in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population who sell their labour in order to survive.
By remaining compromised by association — directly or indirectly — with employers, state or private, or acting as bureaucratic stepping tones to power and privilege for leaders, the labour movement will fail to hold government responsible or to provide any real hope and help for workers, both employed and unemployed.