February’s explosive eNCA interview with former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter sucked all the oxygen from the ailing body politic. Understandably, since his assertions on high-level corruption and criminality were entirely plausible.
His claims on the complicity of at least two cabinet ministers, and the connivance of a third who ignored it, in the malfeasance which has crippled electricity supply, triggered De Ruyter’s axing by an embarrassed Eskom and birthed a spurious legal demand against him by the ANC, which likely has as much chance of success as the failed extradition of the Guptas from Dubai. “Deficient paperwork” in both cases.
Beyond busting any lingering hopes that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration can or even wishes to staunch the rot of corruption and reverse its predecessor’s rule of ruin, there was an even greater truth in the interview which obtained less attention.
He told interviewer Annika Larsen: “They [The ANC] want what will win them the next election, not what will keep the country going for the next two decades.”
In the same month, proving De Ruyter’s assertion that elections matter far more than serious governance, we were treated to performative gestures which now substitute for serious governance under Ramaphosa.
First there was the imposition of a state of disaster, hot on the heels of posting soldiers outside power stations in place of attending to the rot, corruption and skills exodus inside these crippled giants. Though the regulations took three weeks to be gazetted, six weeks after the grand announcement that the state of disaster would curb load-shedding, the disaster notice and regulations were withdrawn.
The other conjuring trick, the appointment of an electricity minister to end the darkness, proved De Ruyter right about the direction of travel of the government. Then there was another sleight of hand, cack-handed as it was, the National Treasury regulation to exempt Eskom, ground zero of state capture, from the reporting requirements of the Public Finance Management Act. This too was withdrawn, “for the time being” anyway. But you must hand it to the government on this score. The publication of the “see no evil, report no evil” Treasury regulations blew away the shards of credibility still attached to the National Treasury and its minister, Enoch Godongwana.
He too must stump up another unbudgeted R37.4bn to meet the “sweetheart” 7.5% wage increase government (which previously promised just 3%) gifted 1.3-million public servants, not that much public service abounds in the failing state. But it should help with the election campaign at least.
Minister of electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa too is all about campaign and performance. So in a series of TV stunts, he visits crippled power stations, announces that crime and corruption are not the problem (despite thousands of pages in the now largely forgotten Zondo report), “except in a few isolated cases”. As Business Day editorialised on March 29, “he seemed very much like a man on the campaign trail”. In other words, he proves De Ruyter right and has a perfect understanding of his job essentials. And likely, it is speculated, the use of expensive and polluting diesel and running power stations beyond the limits of prudence will be the new order of business as even broken Eskom is inspanned to keep the ANC show on the road.
But an inconvenient truth, just like the failed Gupta extradition and the faked death and prison escape of rapist Thabo Bester, was hidden from public view during February’s performance gestures.
This was recently revealed by Nedbank chief economist Nicky Weimar, speaking at a March 30 seminar organised by her employer. She told startled investors that the country narrowly avoided “a total blackout in February, with the grid almost shutting down completely”. Eskom’s grid is designed so that if demand exceeds supply, it automatically shuts down, suggesting even stringent stages of load-shedding have their limits. If politics trumps safety, who knows how this tale of darkness could end in the near future. Little wonder businesses are urgently preparing for a grid collapse and blackout, especially in the coming winter months.
Ironically, the outgoing chair of Nedbank is also chair of the Eskom board. And it is striking how Mpho Makwana failed to back De Ruyter, fast-tracked his sacking, and has been silent on high-level charges of corruption and criminality infesting his organisation. Perhaps he has a role to play in the save-the-ANC-at-all-costs-in-2024 melodrama.
Quite where Russian president Vladimir Putin, now under indictment from the International Criminal Court, fits into the scene is less clear. South Africa’s trade with the US and other Western entities against whom the pitiless Putin has set his face and arms in Ukraine is worth well over R400bn a year. South Africa’s trade with Russia amounts to R13.5bn, or just 0.3% of our foreign trade.
Donald Mackay, head of Global Trade Advisors, wrote of the weekend report that Ramaphosa was sending envoys to Washington DC to “smooth the way for Putin’s visit to South Africa in August”: “The meeting in DC won’t achieve anything if Putin arrives in South Africa, especially since the Brics meeting [which Putin has been invited to attend in Durban] is happening right before the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) summit. If most of the Americans don’t pitch for the Agoa meeting, a not unreasonable prospect, then things will spiral very quickly.”
Since Agoa is the basis for almost all our trade with the US and its renewal, entirely in the gift thereof, is scheduled for 2025, this could be the death knell of entire swathes of the economy here, such as the automotive industry and thousands of jobs. But still, that will only happen after the next election, so from the polling point of view, no problem. For the country’s longer-term prospect, dire times ahead unless the dogmatic allegiance to Russia is reversed, of which there is little prospect.
On the other side of the political fence from the ANC sits the opposition.
Ten days ago, at his acceptance speech at the DA congress, where he won a sweeping re-election, party leader John Steenhuisen set out a proposal, coupled with an invitation to other non-EFF opposition forces.
He suggested they collaborate in a “moonshot coalition” to curb a likely ANC-EFF get-together. (And just this past weekend, Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi confirmed the prospect of such a tie-up).
It seemed eminently sensible and could inject new life and enthusiasm into an often querulous and splintering opposition which always divides most when it comes to unity.
But the reaction of some parties, from outright dismissal and disdain for the offerer to claims of prior ownership of the project, suggests something rather Freudian rather than fundamental seriousness about the risk the country faces and prospects for its arrest, slim though these might be.
It was Sigmund Freud who coined the idea in psychoanalysis of “the narcissism of small differences” or how when a community shares commonalties, “the more likely the people in it are to engage in interpersonal feuds and mutual ridicule”.
Such extreme hypersensitivity and ridicule were hilariously portrayed in the Monty Python classic The Life of Brian. The movie depicts an endless fight between one group, the oppressed Jews under Rome’s tyranny in the time of biblical Israel, who spent and split all their energies not on fighting Rome, but on internecine feuds between the “Judaean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea”.
Guess what? The Romans won. But that film was a parody on politics. Perhaps in the run-up to the 2024 elections life will imitate art and the ANC will laugh all the way to the polls. Just as De Ruyter predicted.