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Eskom's last chance

On February 8 2007, your humble reporter found himself at one of Eskom's properties, not Megawatt Park, the head office where the rodents have gone on strike, but the "convention" one near the vehicle testing station in Midrand; miss it and you will soon find yourself on a dirt road that shows up a neat cemetery on the left hand, or north, side.

The Eskom occasion (not the one at the graveyard) was an announcement by the-then minister of public enterprises, Alec Erwin, a person who has lots of questions to answer about lots of things. The auditorium was packed out and Erwin bristled like a honey badger when he announced the appointment of Jacob Maroga, an electrical engineer, to succeed Thulani Gcabashe as CEO of state-owned power utility Eskom. During a short speech, Erwin described Eskom as the "most important company" in the country.

That may be true enough. Just 12 months later anyone in the country who knew anything about the national electrical grid was huddled down in dark bunkers, waiting for the four horses of the apocalypse to emerge, somehow, victoriously, over Megawatt Park. Less than three years later, Maroga would be booted unceremoniously out of Eskom, perhaps wishing that the first three horses of the apocalypse, with horsemen, would somehow materialise above his head and carry him off to a hotel-sized mansion independent of the national electrical grid.

The night before Erwin announced Maroga's appointment, a cricket ODI (one day international) in Durban was hit by a blackout lasting close to an hour. It meant something, all right, and Erwin seemed to have a sense of it. Erwin, looking as pale as ever, used phrases such as "belated" and "very difficult period ahead" and "immense challenges" in discussing the outlook for Eskom.

Maroga, it was said, had been chosen from more than 270 candidates; the South African cabinet subsequently endorsed his appointment. Erwin expressed "absolute confidence" in the-then current management team of Eskom. He stated that South Africa was "absolutely dependent" on Eskom's "delivery of excellence". Erwin emphasised that this was "the most challenging time in the history of this organisation, given the big build programme and tight supply situation". Planned capital expenditure was put at just under R100bn.

Eskom's realistic capital expenditure is, of course, way up in the hundreds of billions of rands; by now, everyone with any interest in the subject knows that. But Erwin wanted to be taken seriously. A year before he graced the Eskom convention centre with his "absolute confidence" speech, he had told the world on South African national television that sabotage was to blame for a shutdown at Koeberg, Eskom's only nuclear power station.

Erwin later dodged parliamentary censure thanks to the antics of ANC chief whip, Mbulelo Goniwe, later defrocked for sexual misconduct. The-then minister of minerals and energy, Lindiwe Hendriks, explained the Koeberg accident as "...growing evidence of a linkage . . . to resistance to the transformation drive by the government".

The time for gibberish and rot has long been over. Back in September 2007, your humble reporter put it to you that: "There are increasing numbers of power outages galvanising attention on a deteriorating energy infrastructure and on faltering systems management. Eskom's excuses - fires, phase imbalances, fog, rain and routine adjustments - are puerile. The bottom line is that Eskom has not invested adequately in surplus transmission and generation capacity. A period of sustained under-investment in national power stations and transmission network since the mid-1990s, has dealt up a toxic cocktail of insufficient reserve margins to cope with routine failures". Bring on the horses, just the first three.