Are we in a mess or what?


Comment by Ps Ray McCauley

The frequent power shortages that we have seen in recent weeks, particularly stage 4 load shedding, were very disruptive to both business and ordinary citizens’ lives.

But before one goes further, the point has to be made that the notion of an efficient Eskom under apartheid is fundamentally flawed. Those who hanker after the “good old days”, in essence the apartheid era, have taken to social media arguing that Eskom was better run and there was no load shedding then.

Well, there wouldn’t have been any power shortages because the electricity utility was used to supply predominantly one section of our population. Townships and villages were not a priority. Since the dawn of democracy more people have been connected to the grid. Well done to government for that effort.

But in the process of rolling out electricity one critical thing was forgotten: maintenance and plant replenishment. And I suspect that goes for most of our infrastructure. But more on this later. One can forgive Eskom for power supply shortages caused by problems with coal supply and the quality of coal. It is a problem that is external and which can be resolved. Also, one can give allowance for the failure of power supply imported from Cahora Bassa due to the natural disaster in Mozambique.

But one cannot excuse the reported collapse of
and a large number of tube failures and breakdowns at local coal-fired power stations. That is a maintenance issue. Most of Eskom’s plants are said to aging but that is not a recent revelation. Both government and Eskom knew this but it would seem they expected aging infrastructure to perform a miracle. The consequence is that both the economy and families are today paying the price.

The truth is if we want our economy to thrive then we need to invest in its backbone: infrastructure. Instead we have allowed our country to live on borrowed time and are now paying the price of wrong decisions. I am not an engineer but I know enough about the consequences of lack of maintenance and underinvestment into our infrastructure sectors. Today we are seeing the results in the energy sector.

Think about the small business owner in the township who needs electricity to generate an income to feed his/her family. I am here thinking about the salon owner, eatery operator or meat seller. They all need electricity for their businesses to efficiently operate. Stories have been told about how some of them have been deserted by customers because of the intermittent power cuts. One eatery in Soweto reportedly had its equipment damaged because of the power surge when electricity came back after load shedding. I suspect a significant number of small business operators are sitting with a similar problem. Most of them cannot afford alternative sources of power like generators. They are stuck with Eskom.

Think about the mother who has to wake up early in the morning with a house in the dark, prepare to go to work, leave her children behind (who themselves have to prepare to go to school) in a house with no power and come back early in the evening to encounter a dark house again because of second round load shedding. A number of households have had their appliances damaged because of the same power surges when supply is restored. These are the effects of power cuts to ordinary citizens, especially to the vulnerable and the working class who have no generators or means to mitigate the negative effects of of power shortages.

But as I alluded above, the underinvestment and wrong decisions on infrastructure are not confined to the energy sector alone. We have seen the same in transportation and water infrastructure. And these are key sectors. There was no better illustration of the mess in the transportation sector than the head of state being stuck in a commuter train last week. Even with the much talked about investment in Prasa’s rolling stock, there does not seem to be any promising relief for the commuter.

The same applies to water. Already, a number of townships are experiencing the strain of aging water systems. Increasingly, I am reliably informed, water supply in a number of townships is becoming unreliable.

But that is what happens when politicians think they are engineers and know how to run plants. Politicians are much keener on new projects intended to bear their name or add to their resume, than they are on ensuring that the sewers keep working. South Africa still needs a full study or appreciation of the wrong decisions or underinvestment we have made in infrastructure.

Unless our government take seriously the issue of maintaining and investing in the infrastructure ordinary people will continue to suffer under these power cuts and our economy will be stagnate and unemployment will continue rise.

One can only appeal to those who in authority to bring back engineers to assist with the situation at Eskom which is dare for our country.


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