Ruinous power blackouts reached new depths. This as institutions such as municipalities and state organs responsible for security continued to be derelict in carrying out their functions, with dire and, in the case of the July riots, deadly consequences. Thulasizwe Simelane argues that despite these observable failures, opportunities to take a leaf from the playbook of Chippa United owner Chippa Mpengesi and swing the axe of accountability, appear to have been missed.

The setting couldn’t be more rustic and romantic. The orange flame forms something of a halo around the candle wick, as its modest and gentle light flickers and permeates the room. As the light hits on objects, including people in the room, it projects exaggerated and dramatic shadows. To the over-active imagination of a child, these shadows can be put to great ‘theatrical’ improvisation. A hearty meal is being prepared on the open-flame just outside the door. And, occasionally, a child plays with candle wax, which packs quite a sting for those few seconds after it drips onto that playful hand. Cut! Cut! Cut! Wrong scene! This is not 1991 rural South Africa! It’s meant to be 2021 urban or peri-urban South Africa, whose governing party never misses the opportunity to tell all and sundry that it has increased household access to electricity from around 35% in 1994 to over 85% now. Yet here we are! Sitting in the dark in November 2021, stewing in our rage, oscillating from denial, to bargaining and acceptance of our primitive state of existence.

Sitting in the dark, stewing in our collective rage

Fourteen years since that abhorrent euphemism ‘load-shedding’ was first churned out of the spin-machine at Megawatt Park, the national mood is now decidedly seething!

You can tell it is, even from the recent, decisive push back against the label in the media and public discourse, much to the chagrin of the Eskom CEO, who insists on being technically finicky about the definition of a ‘blackout’. The message is amplifying; these are blackouts, Mr De Ruyter.

On your end, it may be shedding the load you consider us—your customers, to be, off your system, but we experience them as electricity blackouts.

That’s our reality when the current stops flowing to our distribution boards.

That the national mood has become so charged around this issue is fully understandable. Forced candle-lit dinners are on the one, arguably more bearable end of the spectrum of inconvenience, but decimation of our economy is on the other, more seismic end of the scale. The cost of lost production runs into the billions with each wave of the energy crisis.

The Chippa Mpengesi protocol, yes, but let’s target correctly

But in our rage, I think we should be wary of falling too easily into what I would like to call, ‘Chippa Mpengesi Syndrome’. The undisputed champion of the revolving door is the owner of Chippa United, Chippa Mpengesi. This champ, who has hired and fired 29 coaches in nine years, truly deserves his name being inducted into the South African lexicon to describe this phenomenon of a quick-fix, revolving-door approach to crises. So, the ‘Chippa Mpengesi Syndrome’ it is. And I say we must guard against falling into it yet again.

I say this against the backdrop of vociferous calls for De Ruyter and the board at Eskom to either resign or be shown the door. The calls are understandable, in the face of the country having experienced the worst year of the utility’s blackouts. They are also not unreasonable, as they are based in part on a yardstick for performance that De Ruyter imposed on himself when he started his tenure in 2020. Back then, he had predicted that there would be pain for about 18 months, as the utility ramped up its maintenance programme, but thereafter the situation would stabilise. But it seems the opposite is actually happening, some 22 months since that undertaking was made. The peak of the pain seems to have come at the end of the 18-month period during which Eskom’s power generation fleet was meant to have been lying chest-open on the operating table, with all the necessary maintenance, upgrades, and overhaul work done to deal once and for all with the source of the aches, and not merely the symptoms.

But what would firing De Ruyter achieve, other than giving us a false sense that we exerted accountability and the froth of our anger subsiding momentarily? It would achieve very little. The reality is that, after De Ruyter and company have exited through the revolving door at Megawatt Park, we would still be sitting with an Eskom fleet whose average age is 40. We would still be sitting with a generation deficit estimated between 4 000 MW and 6 000 MW. That’s the equivalent of one additional Medupi (4 800 MW) plus almost a Koeberg (1 900 MW) that the next Eskom CEO after De Ruyter will simply not have, no matter how popular a choice they are.

See you in 2031, under the light of a Brasso can homemade paraffin lamp

The next CEO we get after we’ve given De Ruyter the Chippa Mpengesi treatment will still be sitting with a maintenance programme that means that s/he and his/her team would still need to take significant generation units off the grid for a few months a year. And, critically, they’d still need to say a Hail Mary in the hope that the rest of the emaciated skeleton of a power system doesn’t break. A prayer that we can safely predict will not be answered. Lastly, on this score, we can apply the Chippa Mpengesi protocol to De Ruyter, but we will still be sitting with policy-makers who are yet to make any significant moves to pre-empt and respond to the predicted shortfall of some 15 000 MW of generation capacity over the next decade. Let’s say it again and perhaps a bit louder this time; in the next 10 years, we are expected to have a shortage of electricity that needs to be made up for, up by the equivalent of three Medupi power stations (4 800 MW) plus almost one Kendal unit (680 MW), and those entrusted with obviating this looming disaster don’t appear to be doing anything right now. See you in 2031, under the dim light of a Brasso can paraffin lamp. And this is not to ignore the plans to procure 2 500 MW of new nuclear energy, 2 580 MW from renewables under bid window 5, and the noble intentions to open bid windows 6 and 7 for more renewable energy in 2022. It’s merely to say realistically that in this country, we’ve learnt the hard way that plans on a PowerPoint presentation are one thing, turning turbines and PV solar panels decked out on site are quite another.

Essentially, our energy situation at the end of 2021 is arguably identical to where we were circa 1997, when the first warnings were issued of an energy crisis and policy-makers did very little about it. And we all know that prophecy came to pass in uncanny fashion in 2008, when loadsh…, I mean blackouts were born. So, by all means, Chippa Mpengesi De Ruyter, Eskom’s CEO number 11 since 2007. I hold no brief for him. But just know, we will not have solved anything if we don’t actually Chippa Mpengesi or at least sternly threaten to do so with the people in the rest of the accountability value chain; those who hold the levers of power, who have been fiddling while Rome burns.

A misdirected application of the Mpengesi protocol ‘derails’ us

The eenie-meenie-miney-mo approach to hiring and firing executives of SOEs has been subject to the Zondo Commission’s investigations. An issue has been the opaqueness of the processes and inexplicable decisions to suspend and expel willy-nilly, competent SOE executives in favour of puppets of political Geppettos, criminals, and clowns. No names need be mentioned. We all know who fits what category. Well, it would seem playing back that reel of that horror show has done nothing to nudge the consciences of those at the steering wheel. As I write this, the penchant to swing a wrecking ball at anything that moves in the direction of progress at public institutions looks set to claim its latest scalp. While De Ruyter looks set to live to fight another day, Zolani Kgosi Matthews appears headed for a derailment in his efforts to not just put Prasa back on the rails, but to build Prasa from the ashes.

Again, this is not to say if Matthews is found wanting, in relation to this undisclosed ”alleged sensitive matter of security breach and other contractual obligations associated with [his] employment contract”, he must not be dealt with. Far from it. It’s to point out that something seems rotten in the state of Denmark, around his ”precautionary” suspension, coming as it does as he was readying himself to re-open the key passenger rail corridors of Mabopane and Cape Town’s central line. Apart from the tensions with labour over the poisoned chalice he was handed, there actually seem to be tensions in the boardroom and even at political level, that suggest he may struggle to remain on the train long enough to see through his ambitious plans. Again, the reasons this SOE is so broken to the point of not being able to pay salaries at Autopax or to run our beloved ‘Shosholoza’ long-distance trains that have marked our history for better or worse, will not be on the table. Just dagger and cloak, opaque and shadowy Chippa Mpengesi tactics.

Those who deserve the Mpengesi protocol are spared

And therein perhaps lies the irony and the contradiction of our current moment. Our hand is swift in wanting to swing the axe in the case of the current Eskom CEO, his board, and Matthews, but when it comes to those who hold political power and governance, it sometimes feels as if our hand of accountability weighs a tonne and just won’t lift the axe. My limited knowledge of the law tells me this is akin to criminal law’s ‘aberratio ictus’; the going astray of a blow meant for one person, ending up hitting another. This is arguably one way to understand the outcomes of this year’s local government elections.

We went into those elections at the beginning of November with the ‘trial’ safely concluded, with all the evidence of governance failures stacked in a neat, irrefutable pile, the verdict passed and sentence endorsed. I mean, we went into the election fully awake to the Emfuleni local municipality’s ‘mother of all potholes’. A trench in the road so deep, locals use it as a skinny-dipping pond. And this is just one outward manifestation of the failures of that council, known for raw sewage running in people’s backyards in Vanderbijlpark and endless water shortages. We went into those elections with our consciences fully-appraised of the sewage-deluged cemetery and homes in the Tswaing Municipality towns of Ottosdal, Sannieshof, and Delareyville. We entered voting booths with the life of eight-year-old Musa Mbele, who drowned while fetching water in a river in Qwaqwa in 2020, supposedly still gnawing at our consciences.

The shoe clearly doesn’t pinch yet

Ours was to swing the axe of accountability and vindicate the righteous rage of citizens. But it would seem collectively as an electorate, we decided to grant a stay of execution to those who have continually let us down. In fact, in some instances, we didn’t just grant a stay of execution, but actually rewarded incompetence and corruption. How else do you explain that while most voters were unenthused and uninspired to even make the effort, of those who did, 40% voted for the governing party in nonsensically-run municipalities like Emfuleni and Maluti-A-Phofung? And in the case of rural municipalities that bear the brunt of ineptitude, like Amahlathi in the Eastern Cape, the ANC scored a handsome 73%. In Tswaing, where heart-sinking images emerged of a cemetery and homes marooned as islands in a sea of raw sewage, prompting the SA Human Rights Commission to describe it as a case of indignity literally following citizens to their graves, the ANC scored an effortless 65%. Voters there could probably smell the sewage as they waited in the voting lines. The shoe is clearly not pinching the voter yet.

The centre is not holding

But two worrying signs emerged from this year’s election. First, it appears that there is a subtle, non-dramatic, yet discernible retreat from the centre of politics in the country. It is true that the most centrist of the country’s political parties, the ANC, still emerged with the largest block of voter support at 45%. But there’s no denying that its loss of sparkle has coincided with a new-found magnetism of parties such as the Freedom Front Plus and its appeal to minority fears rather than majority hopes, the Patriotic Alliance with its unapologetic base-building in aggrieved, predominantly-coloured communities, and the EFF with its Nationalist radical leftist fervour. Even the IFP’s resurgence is in a way spurred on by its ability to re-energise its traditional base in KwaZulu-Natal, than its appeal to centrist, national politics. This subtle trend is so observable that even the previously big parties like the ANC and the DA have recognised it, and have at different points in the past three years sought to throw their fishing lines into the currently rewarding political pond of some of the parties mentioned above. Whether this subtle political under-current grows into a significant wave remains to be seen.

Minority rules

The second worrying sign from this year’s election is the voter participation levels. Of the estimated 42 million eligible voters, just 26 million are registered, and a measly 12 million queued on 1 November. That is an appalling level of participation. It basically means that 12 million people made political decisions for 60 million citizens. And, of course, there are many, nuanced reasons why the turnout was as low as it was, which can be debated and dissected ad-infinitum. But I submit that one of them is undoubtedly a significant chunk of voters who have ‘logged-off’ from our democratic system. This observation finds support in phenomena such as the preference for violent service delivery protests as a solution to problems in many communities.

I suspect any honest analysis of the numbers must take this consideration on board. It can then lean in favour of one or another of the other key factors, but this is a significant weight that does tip the scales.

That’s worrying because it turns the whole notion of ‘participatory democracy’ on its head. It essentially means you have more people who see themselves as ‘outsiders’ to this democratic ritual than you have those who see themselves as ‘insiders’. It flips majority rule to ‘minority rule’. It also raises questions of credibility of the elected local governments, and if the trend is sustained into the next election cycle, the national and provincial governments.

Of course, there is nothing Solomonically-wise in highlighting that the low voter turnout is as much an indictment on the degree of confidence the governing party enjoys, as it is of the opposition offerings in the marketplace of ideas. On paper, an election where the governing party constituency is unenthused provides an opportunity to energise the opposition base. Zambia’s general election this year, and the US poll in 2020, showed the potency of an energised opposition. When the opposition constituency is also unmoved, we have to start asking the hard questions about whether or not voting continues to be seen as a viable outlet for democratic expression, and the loss of confidence in political parties in general, as institutions of democracy. Because if voting is no longer seen as a viable outlet, and parties and other institutions of our democracy such as the judiciary and the media are losing their democratic capital, other, at times non-democratic outlets, such as the looting we saw in July, begin to manifest.

The time-bomb was ticking, it has now started exploding

Just like there are many nuanced reasons for the low voter turnout, this can be applied to the mayhem we saw in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in July. I align myself with the view that says those tragic events were partly a manifestation of the broken political system, especially the pernicious ANC faction politics that has infected a significant proportion of the social fabric and institutions of state. That phenomenon confluenced with (i) the ‘time-bomb’ of off-the-charts unemployment, inequality, and poverty that so many scholars have been warning about for decades, (ii) an impotent state whose agencies were either dunked crouton-in-soup-deep in ineptitude or emaciated by decades of mismanagement and resource mis-allocation, and (iii) a superficial, epidermis-level social cohesion project. What resulted was the perfect storm that rocked the very foundations of our democratic undertaking.

It was in that dark moment in democratic South Africa’s history that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s mettle was truly tested. It’s one thing to be commander-in-chief, clad in camouflage, combat-ready fatigues when the enemy is a colourless, soundless, formless intangible-but-no-less-deadly virus. It’s quite another to be commander-in-chief in a real moment of threat to the life of the nation. With democratic South Africa never having gone to an actual war, the July riots were the strongest litmus-test yet of the commander-in-chief’s dexterity. The life of the nation was under threat, characterised by a significant breakdown in law and order. Yet, Ramaphosa’s stepping up to the plate was lukewarm, characterised by his overly-conciliatory, see-the-good-in-all-people tone. The less said about his lieutenants in cabinet, especially the so-called ‘security cluster’, the better. They were nothing short of embarrassing and shamefully inept.

It was only when the public backlash amplified, as the ruinous and deadly week wore on, that the commander-in-chief finally strolled (not leapt) out. And, eventually, he was to pull that other trigger whose location many of us were starting to doubt he knows; the cabinet reshuffle button. 2021 was the year in which Ramaphosa finally channeled his inner Chippa Mpengesi to a certain degree; not only ‘letting go’ of Zweli Mkhize, but also moving his other political chess pieces about the board. But other than placing himself in the engine-room of the country’s intelligence structures, it turned out no one really lost out from this exercise, as deadwood that should have been load-shed, found itself in some instances promoted. Case in point is the former Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula, who went from running one crucial department badly, to heading up one leg of the triumvirate on which state power rests; the people’s sacred legislature. I know, right? It’s not unlike what happened with the governing party in municipalities like Tswaing and Amahlathi, where they should have been, but were not Chippa Mpengesi’d, but instead were promoted. As it happened, the boldest political moves were to happen in the ANC, with the suspension of its Secretary General Ace Magashule. There, we saw Ramaphosa and his party’s National Executive Committee really going for the jugular and asserting their authority. Imagine if this was their default setting on state matters?

Maybe it’s the South African way, I guess. We hold our football coaches to a higher standard than we do our public officials.