Thursday, 11 December 2014

Eskom - Where is South Africa Headed and Who is in the Driver’s Seat?

For those readers who are not South African – Eskom is the South African public utility company. The company has been increasing prices over the last few years and generally, South Africans often experience unexpected power outages, especially when living in more remote areas. So all in all Eskom is not a public favorite. That being the ‘normal state of affairs’ – now Eskom is in trouble. The infrastructure is compromised and the company is not able to meet the growing demand for electricity. This has resulted in scheduled load shedding. Practically, it means that every day we look on the Eskom website to see if there is any load shedding happening and what ‘stage’ of load shedding we’re on. Then each one can look up what the load shedding schedule is for their area – where either, power will not be turned off, will be turned off for 2,5 hours every three days, every day, or several times a day. Then we hope that the load shedding ‘stage’ does not suddenly change, where we are not prepared for the power outages, that the power comes on again when they say it does and that if no power outage is scheduled, that there won’t be any unexpected outages, leaving us in the dark anyways.

Obviously, it’s not a very pleasant situation, but what concerns me most is how it is driving South Africans into a particular course of action that is fuelled by emotion rather than practical considerations.

So – South Africans, I now address myself to you:

For a moment, take a step back from your direct experience with Eskom, and observe the ‘bigger picture’, the larger pattern that is playing out. What we’re going through at the moment has happened before – it is nothing new. You can look at examples in Greece, in Spain – in any country that started privatizing public utilities after the public increasingly voiced their displeasure with the companies’ performances. It just ‘made sense’ to ask for privatization, because ‘obviously’, the company, when in public hands, was not efficient and was not acting in the best interest of the public. The assumption or expectation exists that when the company is transferred to private hands, that it will perform better, be more responsible and, somehow, work in the interest of the public; its clients. But what actually happens when public utilities are transferred from the public to the private sector? The service becomes even scarcer, because it is now working according to private market logic – prices sky-rocket and so many lose access to a living requirement, because it’s just not affordable. But it does not only affect ‘the poor’. For others, financial pressures increase, because the utility bill is sky-high and purchasing power drops significantly.

Now – I’m sketching the pattern in large strokes and I’m not trying to make an argument for leaving things as they are. What I do want to stress is to be watchful for grasping at the first proposed alternative to the current situation in the expectation that it is an actual solution. That is what emotional decisions are. I’m sure you’ve had experiences in your personal life of making decisions when you were emotionally unstable – decisions that you regretted later on, because they were made in the heat or in the turbulence of the moment, when you did not see things clearly. That is what is happening right now – only on a larger scale.

I strongly suggestion watching the documentary ‘Catastroika’  as it shows how the exact same pattern has played out in other countries and what the actual consequences are. You can view the full documentary here:

We are already heading in the same direction. Visit the Eskom’s facebook page, and have a look at the comments left by individuals to any of their posts – it’s a reflection of the emotional state the country is in. Then visit the website ‘’ , scroll down and to the right you will see a voting poll with the question “Should Eskom be privatized?” – currently 90% of voters (2238 votes) said ‘yes’ – while 10% (257 votes) said ‘no’. If Eskom is privatized, then those in power can say that ‘the people wanted it so’ – but who engineered the circumstances that drove the decision? Again – watch the documentary.

So – what else can we do? Even if Eskom is not privatized, is there an alternative? We tend to look at things in black and white and see only two options: nationalization and privatization – thinking along the lines of: ‘The company was already nationalized, we’re not happy now, so let’s try privatization instead.’ But there is another option. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.


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