SAFTU and the whole society need to change the prevailing power relations, starting with electricity supply. Today, President Cyril Ramaphosa is being thanked by many – especially in big business – for over-ruling the Energy Minister, Gwede Mantashe, and opening up new generation capacity. There is such hope that especially by using renewable energy, the world can avoid climate catastrophe.
On the one hand, we are desperate to end load-shedding, as well as the “load-reduction” aimed at punishing poor and working-class residents of townships and impoverished dorpies who cannot pay their Eskom bills and sometimes resort to illegal connections. These power cuts are unacceptable.
And we know the middle classes are as desperate as workers for some relief from the depressing winter-time chill, especially during an unprecedented health pandemic. And although they do not typically resort to indoor coal, paraffin, or wood as alternatives to having their electric power cut constantly, the middle-class misery is also real.
So, we salute women especially, who in their social reproduction of our households somehow carry these burdens of cooking, heating and childcare using scarce or dirty energy, displaying with their increased sacrifice such love for their family, and such justified hatred of Eskom.
On the other hand, we despair that the ‘solution’ chosen will continue to fail the masses, since it reflects neoliberal principles of state shrinkage and for-profit energy supply, which has been disastrous in so many other countries.
We also worry that the upper-middle classes and rich are trying their familiar old class-apartheid tricks that they so readily apply to transport, healthcare, education, home security and anything else they can privatise or buy themselves out of, so as to avoid coming into contact with our working masses. In the case of energy, we see the wealthy insulating themselves from load-shedding with home-based generators and invertors, and even rooftop solar systems costing more than R150 000 per house.
What they are doing is selfish: undermining both municipal and Eskom revenues, which in turn deepens the fiscal crisis, preventing these public suppliers from cross-subsidisation to make electricity and other municipal services affordable, or even available, to the masses. That’s why SAFTU insists that socially-owned renewables, with community control and worker self-management, are absolutely vital as elements of a transformed national grid, one that can draw on sun and wind where they are strongest at any given time, and arrange major storage facilities for overcast days and windless periods, such as pumped hydropower and molten salt.
The selfish, individualised strategies are no substitute for a well-planned national system based ultimately on low-polluting renewable energy. Nor is breaking Eskom into generation, transmission, and distribution components sensible, given our national grid’s need for coherence, not to mention the way privatisations and corporatisations have so often failed in a country with such corrupt corporate and ruling-party skellums.
No trust in the state and capital
And while we hope for any improvement in this degraded energy system, we don’t trust this government or big capital. We know that when Ramaphosa was put in charge of the Eskom War Room once he became Deputy President in 2014 – while still owning coal mines through the Shanduka empire, including the notorious Optimum, whose divestment came much later – he failed miserably.
Since 2006 when Koeberg nuclear power station had to be taken offline due to a ‘loose bolt’, creating a long Western Cape black-out and costing the ANC control over the City of Cape Town in that year’s municipal elections, the public utility has become ungovernable. Its response to persistent electricity shortages was to ignore them until in 2007 its managers and leading politicians decided to commission the two largest coal-fired power plants being built anywhere on earth: Medupi and Kusile.
Among other coal-fired power plant problems, it was the flaws in these two monsters – commissioned at R60 billion each but now many years behind schedule and still incomplete at R200 billion each – that led to this week’s Stage 4 outages. At the time, in the late 2000s when economic growth was much higher, that decision to build Medupi and Kusile revealed to many of us, the depth of corruption by leadership in Eskom (chaired by Valli Moosa who an ANC Finance Committee member was also operating in conflict of interest), various oversight ministries – Public Enterprises (Alec Erwin), Energy (Dipuo Peters) and Finance (Pravin Gordhan) – and the Presidency (Thabo Mbeki).
If Jacob Zuma should “Pay Back the Money!” so that accountability is demanded for all his corruption, so too should Moosa, Erwin, Peters, Gordhan and Mbeki, for the 2007 deals their party’s investment wing Chancellor House made with Tokyo-based Hitachi, whose boilers costing tens of billions of rands failed yet again this week. The Chancellor House sleaze was prosecuted in the U.S. under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, leading Hitachi to pay a $19 million (R260 million) fine in 2015. But the beneficiary was the U.S. government – while here, that company remains in place serving Eskom incompetently, as we remain in the dark.
Renewables done wrong
Did matters change today, now that up to 100MW of privatised electricity generation can be built by wealthy corporates? We would celebrate, were Ramaphosa truly shifting South Africa away from contributing even more to the climate crisis by replacing Eskom’s unreliable coal and nuclear generating fleet – as well as even-more methane-emitting gas power plants – with renewable energy, and at the same time repairing Eskom.
But trade unionists and all our communities have become cynical. Indeed, we disagree with Ramaphosa’s statement, in which the new strategy will be to rely on for-profit corporates, even if the energy is renewable, and even if we are relieved that this is a huge step up from the tokenistic 1MW that Mantashe was allowing before making a 10MW concession.
Mantashe has shown a surreal hostility to renewable energy supplied in larger increments, which is why we feel the ANC Integrity Commission and Green Scorpions – as well as the Zondo Commission – are correct in their suspicions and investigations of Mantashe, for bizarre deals involving the likes of high-pollution Karpowership offshore gas generators or his Bosasa-gifted home security systems.
A socialist alternative awaits debate
But Ramaphosa must be presented with an alternative to his privatised power plan, and as socialists we insist that the basic strategy should instead be: decorporatising Eskom and replacing the junkies there addicted to coal, gas and nuclear energy generation – all of which appear rife with corruption – with serious labour, social and environmental activists.
We want a Green New Eskom, and to that end, in 2019 we joined the Climate Justice Coalition of leading civil society, grassroots, trade union and community-based organisations to develop the case. We hope the whole society now considers and endorses Coalition demands to transform Eskom and the country’s energy system:
These accompany SAFTU’s demands to the Presidential Climate Change Commission a few weeks ago, namely that a genuine Just Transition will require nationalisation (without compensation) of fossil fuel and other high-emissions facilities, in order to make the emissions cuts required. Instead of a corporatized model of ownership, as exists with the likes of Eskom, Transnet, and other State Owned Enterprises under neoliberal-capitalist rule, these should be considered as public utilities aimed at maximising the public good, especially the interests of poor and working-class people. That will entail not only hard work on closing the fossil-fuel facilities, but also in repurposing them for proper Just Transition activities.
These are not impossible demands; they are no more arduous than defeating apartheid in 1994, or gaining freely-supplied, locally and generically-manufactured AIDS medicines in 2004, or, more recently, winning free tertiary education for working-class students. All required intense protest, supported by the trade union movement. It is no surprise, that at MegaWatt Park there are back-to-back demonstrations this week by Soweto residents and Eskom workers, all angry at the corporatised, neoliberal approach adopted by Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyters.
Today, the society is on notice that nearly everything that Eskom’s de Ruyters, President Ramaphosa, Minister Mantashe and the ruling class does to address energy, first helps big business while spiking up the price of power paid by poor and working-class people, and letting rich people find their own escape route.
And that is simply unacceptable in what is the world’s most unequal country, one with such strong traditions of poor and working-class people finding unity with the middle class to defeat the rich and powerful. And that is what lies ahead now that the corporatised Eskom is obviously in its death throes. Our unity will be forged in the search for a Green New Eskom, with the most red social justice objectives, as workers assert class interest and counter power.