Give the private sector a go at electricity provision


Evidence-based policy making can have mixed results, based on information fed into the process at the start.
At the best of time, solid evidence and clear objectives – desired outcomes – should make for the best results.
That’s terribly wonkish language.
Let me state it clearly, with a specific example, making an argument for the privatisation of SA’s electricity grid.
Before proceeding, it is necessary, at this point, to insert the de rigueur ideological caveats.
The belief in nationalisation and privatisation is deeply part of ideological debates that pit left-wingers against rightwingers, socialists against capitalists, free marketers against social democrats, with the usual trading of insults.
In a previous column, I made reference to the simplicity of SA politics.
I explained (I think) how anything polite or gracious was to a white male in the DA, was loaded with the baggage of centuries of historical abuse.
In other words, if I expressed any admiration for Athol Trollip’s command of isiXhosa, all the violence of centuries of white colonialism and apartheid would be placed at my feet.
That’s really how silly politics has become, how expedient, manipulative and unsophisticated some of our politicians are.
Then again, I have a troll, a “distinguished professor” who enjoys sending me the most patronising and passive aggressive e-mail messages about everything I write.
Nonetheless, the cynosure of this is to the EFF and the ANC faction to which Andile Lungisa belongs.
If only things were that simple in the world…
And so, making the suggestion for privatisation of Eskom, I would, then, be labelled anything from a raving capitalist, a neo-liberal, a free marketer and even a racist, because, you know, we black people don’t like markets, only white people do.
That was sarcasm.
So here then is my case for privatising Eskom, why I believe it may be a good thing and what resistance we may expect.
Although I am not given to scientism, I want to start with a lesson from my favourite physicist, Richard Feynman.
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are.
If it does not agree with the evidence, your theory is wrong.
You go back to the drawing board.
The idea that Eskom should remain a state-owned enterprise is essentially an ideological, even a philosophical position.
It may be time for philosophers to change the world – for the better.
SA has had 25 years of trying to make Eskom effective and efficient, to make it deliver electricity to people and to provide a steady stream of energy to business.
SA has failed.
Energy supply is periodically halted. Business and industry are seriously affected.
Local and foreign investors are cautious about investing in the country, and then there is the big elephant in the room.
From the evidence that is emerging, Eskom seems to have been the epicentre of corruption, graft, maladministration, professional and technical incompetence and state capture.
The Zondo commission heard last week that when Jabu Mabuza assumed the position of Eskom chairperson in January 2018, he found that it was the “main theatre where corruption and state capture was taking place”.
Detailed reporting by parliament’s portfolio committee on public enterprises on its inquiry into Eskom – abbreviated for space here – showed evidence of undue preferential treatment of private sector contractors, mainly those linked to the Gupta family, with respect to operational licensing and procurement terms.
During the process of awarding contracts, Eskom executives and the board were described as “acting in an unusual and potentially improper way in their dealings”.
A key deployee of the ANC ministry of mineral resources, Mosebenzi Zwane, was found to have acted in “unusual and potentially improper” ways when dealing with private sector companies like Optimum Coal Holdings and Tageta.
The report is long and detailed.
The standout point made in the report was: “A set of executives and senior staff appeared to have been part of a network that actively participated in irregular, corrupt and/or otherwise unlawful contracts and processes at Eskom”.
So, if you have had 25 years (a quarter century) to get things right, and it has resulted in mass corruption, breakdown with potentially devastating effects on the economy and society, is it not time to hand the task to someone else?
What would be the response from ideologues on the left?
It’s really quite simple, actually.
From Numsa to the EFF, Lungisa and Cosatu, we may expect the usual philosophical cries.
Consumers, the more than 1.3 million residents of Soweto, who owe Eskom R17bn (think how much good can be done with that money) would cry foul.
The evidence is clear. The state has been unable to stop the breakdown of electricity generation and supply.
The state has been unable to prevent mass corruption, technical and professional misconduct.
The state has been unable to collect R17bn in outstanding electricity bills.
Maybe the state should step out of generation and provision of energy – and give the private sector a chance.
This is not to say that the private sector cannot be corrupt.

This article is reserved for HeraldLIVE subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all our content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Already registered on DispatchLIVE, BusinessLIVE, TimesLIVE or SowetanLIVE? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.