There is no more visible reminder of governance inefficiencies than when the lights go out. It is a catalyst for the re-emergence of deep discontent as the physical manifestation of failed SOEs
It took almost a week of highly damaging power blackouts before the ANC – via the eminently credible Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan – finally addressed the issue last Thursday. Unfortunately for the ANC – and in particular President Cyril Ramaphosa, there was little to cheer about.
Gordhan sounded as frustrated and perplexedas most any South African. But all he could do was tentatively promise no load shedding over the festive season, no vacation for Eskom executives and yet another investigation into the chaos that now seems synonymous with the power provider.
Remember the 2015 “War Room” chaired by then deputy president Ramaphosa to address the blackout crisis? It all seems like a de javu with the same destructive effect.
Given the severity of the maintenance failures along with the “hollowing” out of state capture and critical debt levels, Eskom clearly threatens to undermine government finances and with it, economic revival.
But, wait, as the advert says, there is more.
Load shedding also presents the biggest political threat to Ramaphosa’s much vaunted “new dawn”.
Economic revival cannot occur in darkness as unplanned outages threaten the necessary tranches of domestic and foreign investment required to kick-start job creation and flagging GDP figures. And wave goodbye to the much hyped 4th Industrial Revolution if the plugs don’t work.
But significantly, as election 2019 looms, load-shedding – should it continue into the post-holiday season period threatens to undermine the leadership of Ramaphosa himself and the potential majority of the ANC in May.
There is no more visible reminder of governance inefficiencies than when the lights go out. It is a catalyst for the re-emergence of deep discontent as the physical manifestation of SOE mis-management and corrosive corruption enters each and every home or dwelling peddling with it an inability to manage the most basic – yet critical – function of power provision.
Ramaphosa’s efforts to re-boot his own party, draw in those disaffected during the Zuma years and also appeal to a more receptive opposition voter will be dealt a blow should load shedding continue into the election campaign.
If load shedding persists, it would offer both the DA and EFF considerable ammunition to resurrect their own critiques of ANC governance which had been deflected rather well by Ramaphosa’s coming-to-power.
And, the discontent at a micro-level in the kitchens of South Africans would similarly be felt in the more macro-environment of the country’s economic hubs and factory floors affecting the moral of the entrepreneurial and business community who have more recently become praise-singers of the president’s more business-friendly approach.
Ultimate gift to opposition squandered
Whilst the ANC’s biggest challenge will be to keep the lights on during an election campaign, South Africa’s opposition will also be under pressure to provide a coherent critique of government inefficiency.
If the past week is anything to go by, the DA (and EFF) have largely squandered a major opportunity to take the battle to the ANC. With load shedding causing shutdowns across every corner of the country, neither party has been able to effectively channel the rising discontent to their advantage.
In most competitive democracies, this level of gross incompetence would be the ultimate gift to opposition – yet in South Africa, there has been precious little on this issue from both Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema. With weak attempts to mobilise their supporters in peaceful protest on this most glaring issue, they have simply given the ANC a get-out-of-jail card.
Finally, there is an additional political subtext to all of this. Those that wish to embarrass or weaken the Ramaphosa/Gordhan axis will also derive some satisfaction from load shedding. Unless Gordhan can get a grip on the issue – and do this early in January – the Ramaphosa-faction can also be weakened.
The failure of a critical service provider like Eskom might rightly be laid at the door of the Zuma/Gupta years, but it’s the immediate incumbents dealing with the matter who will also suffer political danger by simple virtue of their association with an apparent inability to get things right.
Unfortunately for South Africa, Eskom’s woes require more than just a band-aid approach to avoid outages during an election campaign. A longer-time ideological shift towards a public-private mix and alternative non-State grid options is critical.
Although that should be the longer-term focus, it’s the short-term political issues that may be highly volatile as a result of load-shedding. And that should be keeping the ANC’s politicians up at night over this Christmas period – for sure.
By Daniel Silke
– Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.