OPINIONISTA

Steven Boykey Sidley: Eskom and the unseen spider web

As I sit here in darkness again, trapped in the purgatory between outrage and resignation, an emergent fact about Eskom becomes evident.

It is less that some odious mixture of incompetence and corruption has brought us back to this point. It is a growing realisation that Eskom’s tottering walls cannot be fixed, at least not for the next 10 years or more. Not even if an endless supply of cheap capital suddenly appeared, and not even if the entire cadre (a word I use with intent) of incompetents and crooks still holing up in plush offices was magically and instantly replaced by the best of the best.

First, let’s dispense with the whole “sabotage/dirty” tricks narrative. This is a Trumpian deflection by those who would wish the spotlight to be pulled off Eskom and their current ANC masters.

It is simple. Just say it – “power stations are being sabotaged”. Presumably by Machiavellian forces of darkness seeking to embarrass and ruin a sitting government. The Zuma faction or the EFF or WMC or the unions. It really doesn’t matter. One does not need facts to support this. Just say it, and a goodly number of excited journalists will be off on a tear in search of a conspiracy that does not exist and the public’s hot anger at Eskom will be diluted as their attention moves elsewhere for blame.

Weve seen it before, folks. Conspiracies are fun, it’s a cheap and easy trick, evidence not required. They have the excellent advantage of dissolving the need for self-examination, never a strong point with the ruling party.

And it is only partially instructive to look back at big mistakes. The first rolling blackouts happened 10 years ago. Excuses were given (even though the government was warned by Eskom engineers in the late Nineties that upgrades had to be done). Promises were made, appointments were made, budgets were drawn up. But the infrastructure continued to crumble and the lights were kept on by diesel supplements, contributing (along with fraud) to an unsustainable and unrepayable R400-billion debt. The financial poobahs call this kicking the can down the road.

Well, we’ve reached the end of that road.

I recently finished the Michael Lewis book The Fifth Risk. In this book, the author digs really deep into the functions of the US government, right down to the lower levels of the Departments of Energy, and Agriculture and Commerce and others. He speaks to technocrats who drive functions at the invisible lower levels of the org chart – far, far from the politicians and policy barkers who sit at the top, their faces splashed across TV screens and newspapers. Down at the bottom, these people are in charge of tornado warnings, or culling bird flu-infected chickens, or getting food stamps and school lunches to the deserving, or making sure social security cheques get to their intended recipients. At these levels, the US government is a marvel of efficiency, and the people who make it work are simply doing their jobs, unsung, average-salaried and committed to service. Heroes all.

And he goes on to describe the intricate processes that have been finely woven over decades and longer, an infinity of tiny strands carefully pruned by trial and error and common sense and technology until the citizen services run like smoothly oiled machines. These processes are far too numerous to have been documented. Anyone who takes a new job at enterprise will recognise this – how to get a gate key, how to re-order stationery, how to get a WiFi password, how to order a business card, how to get an expense reimbursed, where to find a digital file. You ask here and you ask there. And finally, you get to know how to navigate the enterprise and how to do your job.

What you are doing is interrogating and ingesting institutional memory, which is made up of uncounted past and present employees and the glue of history.

And this is the rub. This gossamer-thin substrate of knowledge is the foundation of all institutions. At Eskom, it has been utterly destroyed by successive regimes. The purging of the institution is now legend. First, it was the apartheid-era staff – engineers, technicians, administrators, field jockeys. Then the various ANC factions came in and swept clean again and again, leaving the millions of tiny cogs of the machine unattended until they were simply forgotten. It has nothing to do with skills or engineers or strategy – that is the big stuff. Once you have torn the tiny threads of the process web apart, the institution is hollowed out from within.

Eskom is a broken machine supported on a shredded web. It cannot be rebuilt by money, by engineers, by managers, by policy, by technology, or by corporate restructuring alone.

It can only be rebuilt organically, over time, and a lot of it.

And it is not clear whether we have it. DM

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