Eskom failures a lesson for all


When famous business schools around the world stumble across a major corporate failure or success, they quickly hire specialist writers to compose a “case study” for teaching broader principles about business management, business ethics or business leadership.
Eskom is such a case – a gift to teachers about economics, politics, society and life in general.
To begin with, the crisis in Eskom teaches us something vital about how South Africans deal with such misery in everyday life.
We cope using humour. The endless memes and tweets relieve the stress such as when Lester Kiewiets posts that “Stage 10 is when Eskom comes to take your sunlight soap”.
Brilliant; we laugh, otherwise we can do little more than fret.
Even as we laugh we try to fix things, such as the prescient group of entrepreneurs that developed the very helpful app called EskomsePush.
Stage 4 load-shedding pretty much makes a mockery of the 4th Industrial Revolution, said another comedian.
Eskom is a great example for teachers to use in teaching children the invaluable gift of how to think critically.
The mass of public responses to load-shedding is to blame Eskom.
Eskom mismanaged the public utility, and that is certainly one part of the puzzle as to how we landed in this very serious crisis.
But if you asked me what the single most important lesson is that I learnt as a student, it would be the importance of thinking relationally.
That is to say, Eskom does not explain itself. A good history teacher therefore seizes on this moment to teach children to think historically by posing powerful questions – what are the roots of the Eskom problem? Where did it start?
Why did senior managers not anticipate the crisis long before it began?
If they did, as some claim, and brought this to the attention of our political leaders, why did those in government not take the necessary steps to avert the coming crisis?
Nothing makes the concept of “a present past” more real than the Eskom crisis.
We tend to think of corruption as wrong things done by corrupt people but not really affecting most of us.
The Steinhoff scandal, we might reason, affects a relatively small group of citizens, and the Nkandla corruption really does not impact on our personal lives.
What the Eskom debacle does is to blow the lid off that myth in ways given that we can feel the consequences of corruption when the lights go off two or three times a day.
A “woke” business economics teacher would therefore be able to show how state capture enabled by corrupt relations between the Gupta family and senior government leaders contributed to the ongoing misery of ordinary South Africans.
Both the economics teacher as well as the mathematics teacher could, for example, do exquisite calculations on the material impact of the Eskom crisis on small business owners working with tight margins in a slow-growth economy.
What better way for the accountancy teacher to teach the concept of interest and compound interest than to give students real numbers on the level of indebtedness of Eskom – running north of R420bn – and how simply paying off the interests on loans taken to build two existing power stations (which are both functioning at less than full capacity and running behind schedule for completion) means that investors regard the single most important threat to the South African economy to be, you guessed it, Eskom.
The politics teacher would have a field day with the Eskom scandal by showing how power, greed and corruption work in tandem to create the devastation wrought by Eskom.
The crisis, this teacher might point out, is about political power, not simply electrical power.
What a great opportunity to teach the powerful concept of political economy showing the interdependence of politics and economics in the governance of a country.
A savvy teacher would cast doubt on conspiracy theories such as “sabotage” that keeps coming up when the government is too embarrassed to acknowledge its own incompetence (remember then-minister Alec Erwin’s missing bolt to explain the meltdown at the Koeberg power station?).
Deflection, the teacher would point out is a key strategy in modern-day politics such as blaming the storms in Mozambique for the loss of megawatts when the crisis of Eskom is a much more complex story about bureaucratic ineptness and corruption within the state.
It falls to teachers of all subjects to remind students that when they see those huge billboards of smiling politicians all over the place promising South Africans the world in this election year, to harbor a healthy suspicion of those who cannot even keep the lights on.

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