OPINION: Election season – sheesh!

Norman McFarlane

If aliens have been observing us for centuries as so many people believe, whoever is on duty in the control room right now, would nod sagely and say “It’s obviously election season there again”.

The quanta of hot air, self-righteous indignation, self-serving rhetoric and potshots taken at other parties, all disguised as campaigning, is beyond belief.

By way of example, Eskom’s woes are a hot topic, and everybody, of course, has the right solution to the problems facing the power utility.

The latest sally by the DA to recall Parliament to address the Eskom crisis, is a case in point.

What better drum to beat than the massive impact of load shedding on the economy specifically, and the country as a whole?

We are all painfully aware of the impact of load shedding, because we all experience it when it happens, whether we live in a leafy suburb or a RDP house, or an informal settlement, so why rub our noses in it?

It’s not as if the “solutions” advanced by the DA are not already under consideration in some form by the team appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to seek solutions to the Eskom crisis, so what will the multi-party ad-hoc parliamentary committee the DA wants convened actually achieve?

Breaking up Eskom into three separate entities – generation, transmission, distribution – is already on the cards according the Mr Ramaphosa, so the DA’s suggestion to split it into two – generation, dispatching – is moot.

Expediting the recruitment of engineers who have left Eskom to accelerate power station maintenance is pointless. The problem isn’t a lack of engineers. The problem is a complete breakdown of planned maintenance over the last two or three decades.

Had that planned maintenance taken place, Eskom would not be lurching from one catastrophic plant failure to the next, in a vain attempt to keep the lights on.

More engineers will not miraculously clear that maintenance backlog. It will take time and money.

It might be a good idea to allow Eskom to buy quality coal from any sources it chooses, but there is the small matter of existing long-term supply contracts, which, if they were to be summarily cancelled, would inevitably end up in court, so no solution there.

As much as we might believe others did not play by the rules when those contracts were concluded, it makes no sense for Eskom to reciprocate by also not playing by the rules.

The suggestion that cities be permitted to buy electricity from independent power producers is a sound one, but convening an ad-hoc committee isn’t going to make that happen in the short term. It will take a legislative change to give effect to that suggestion. It’s called the rule of law.

Freezing the build on the last two units at the grossly over budget and dreadfully constructed Kusile power station is another of those convenient canards that is undoable. Any attempt to do so will inevitably end up in court.

The suggestion that Petro SA be “instructed” to sell diesel to Eskom tax free and at cost price, to run its ruinously expensive closed-cycle gas turbines, will once more mean the side-stepping of due process, something for which the ANC is routinely criticised. Or is to be condoned because the opposition has made the suggestion?

If one takes all of the suggestions made to #KeepTheLightsOn at face value, and were all of them to be expeditiously implemented, it would no doubt make a difference, but would it be the silver bullet that miraculously fixes Eskom?

Well, here’s the thing: there is no silver bullet.

For the record, past president Jacob Zuma’s weekend assertion, that had his nuclear build plan gone ahead, our power problems would by now have been solved, does not deserve a response.

The proverbial elephant in the room must be eaten as one would eat any other elephant: one bite at a time.

With stage 5 and stage 6 load shedding – eight hours a day without power – a real possibility, those who can afford to, are taking steps to mitigate the impact of load shedding by going solar or acquiring a generator, but that option is only feasible for the economically capable, a tiny fraction of the total population.

Eskom has been granted a tariff increase of 9.41% by the national energy regulator, effective next Monday. Those who buy from Eskom will feel that increase immediately, while those who buy from a municipal source, will feel it at the beginning of the next financial year, July 1 for the Cape metropole.

Eskom wanted more, much more, because it needs to reduce its cost of borrowing to manageable proportions, in order to continue to service its crippling debt burden of R419 billion.

That this mountain of debt is self-inflicted is axiomatic, but it is also academic. It cannot be written off, nor can it be absorbed by the state, so it must be serviced.

Eskom needs you and I to do so, by paying through the nose for electricity for the rest of our lives.

There is no magic wand.