Just hours after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Monday evening announcement of a “10-point power crisis plan”, educationist and public commentator Jonathan Jansen commissioned an online survey.
Jansen asked respondents how confident they were that in respect of the “bold announcements of the president to fix the energy crisis that this time words will become actions?”
Of the 580 people who had responded to this challenge on Tuesday morning, 67% answered “zero” as to the likelihood that the plan would be translated into meaningful action, while just 3% were 100% confident it would (26% of respondents felt there was a 50% likelihood of implementation and 4% rated prospects at 75%).
In other words, weary and depressed South Africans believe there is an enormous chasm between the reassuring words of Ramaphosa and the likelihood of decisive action which could lead to the end of blackouts.
Many years ago, in 1966, then US Congressional leader (and future president) Gerald Ford coined the phrase “credibility gap” to describe the discrepancy between what a politician says and the real facts. In that case Ford was calling out then US president Lyndon Johnson, who — in the teeth of contrasting evidence — kept denying greater American involvement in the Vietnam War.
The year after, famed columnist Walter Lippmann wrote: “To avoid embarrassment of calling a spade a spade, newspapermen have agreed to talk about a credibility gap. This is a polite euphemism for deception.”
As the tragic and escalating events in Vietnam proved, America’s involvement surged, which both led to Johnson’s forced exit from the White House two years later in 1968 and, by further dint of historical irony, America’s humiliating retreat from Saigon in 1975 under the presidency of one Gerald Ford.
But back to our blackening skies here: Ramaphosa at least did not retreat into euphemisms during his Monday evening address. He certainly didn’t deceive either when he described how “severe load-shedding (another euphemism) has disrupted all our lives and caused immense damage to our economy … inconvenienced millions of households and presented huge challenges for businesses … South Africans are justifiably frustrated and angry. They are fed up.”
No exaggeration or sugarcoated words here.
However, “the credibility gap” — as evinced in the Jonathan Jansen poll, emerged when Ramaphosa promised his 10-point plan would “achieve long-term energy security and end load-shedding for good”. He did not state when this would happen, who would be held accountable for missing the targets, precisely the costs for the steps announced and how they would be funded.
But having experienced, just last Thursday, 13 hours in our home without electricity (after our inverter collapsed and the local substation blew its gaskets following the latest stage four load-shedding), this is no time to cavil or carp. We simply have to hope against past dashed expectations and misleading promises and unmet deadlines that this time, somehow, things will be different.
Energy expert Anton Eberhard asks the crucial question: “Will the interventions announced by President Ramaphosa end power cuts in SA?”
His answer is sobering: “Maybe. In three years’ time. But only if implemented with urgency and purpose.” That is a huge presupposition. And he couples it with a reminder that if the recommendations made to Ramaphosa in 2015 and 2019 had been implemented, “we would not have load-shedding now”.
I was particularly struck by Eberhard’s reference to 2019. That was the time when Eberhard — along with other energy and electricity mavens such as Sir Mick Davis, Brian Dames, Dr Tsakani Mthombeni — were appointed by Ramaphosa to an “Eskom Sustainability Task Team”. Their remit and short reporting period (January and June 2019) was to — among other tasks — “assess the operational, structural and financial viability of Eskom” precisely because more than three years ago, there was, per Ramaphosa’s December 2018 announcement, “government’s concern that the lack of adequate electricity [demands] a need for intervention in the short and medium term”.
The task team duly reported in immense and structured detail, though the reports were never officially published. However, it is understood that back in 2019, every step (and several more not mentioned in the latest plan) announced by Ramaphosa three days ago was sitting on the president’s desk.
About the only step he did announce in his 2019 Sona address was the imminent restructuring of Eskom into three entities, for electricity generation, electricity transmission and distribution business. Extraordinarily on Monday evening, Ramaphosa reheated (forgive the pun) the same announcement, only adding this would now happen “by the end of 2022”.
Will this time be different? Will stern action follow the honeyed words? Will recalcitrant ministers finally step up and deliver? Will the obdurate and cosseted public sector unions allow private sector entrants without sabotaging new installations ? Will the overstuffed and ruinously expensive ranks of Eskom management be culled? Will Ramaphosa finally deliver and not dawdle?
Only affirmative answers to these key questions will allow us to step back from the abyss and reduce the yawning credibility gap at the heart of government. For all our sakes let’s hope, somehow and despite all past evidence, this time is really different.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA