Eskom: Power, Politics and the (Post) Apartheid State

Faeeza Ballim, Eskom: Power, Politics and the (Post) Apartheid State (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2023)

FOR many years a joke has gone the rounds. Satan is visiting South Africa and is sitting at a bar. ‘And who,’ asks another patron, ‘are you?’ ‘I,’ says Satan, ‘am the prince of darkness.’ ‘Eish!’ exclaims the other drinker, ‘then you must work for Eskom.’ The state utility is now in its fifteenth year of dysfunctional loadshedding with no end in sight and it carries a massive debt burden.

Faeeza Ballim’s publication is based on a thesis, always a tricky exercise in adaptation. What the general reader needs from a book is often very different from the requirements of a supervisor. Ballim approaches this history of Eskom with a case study of developments in the Waterberg area of Limpopo around Ellisras (Lephalale) from the 1960s focusing in particular on the Matimba power station, Grootgeluk coal mine and the infamous Medupi.

Until the early 1970s, Eskom’s development was driven by engineers and their problem-solving capabilities in collaboration with arch-industrialists like H.J. van der Bijl who advocated diversification away from gold mining. Electricity generation and steel production (Iscor) were seen as the means. This was of course hitched to apartheid after 1948, although neither legislation nor policy were monolithic and loopholes could be found.

The Waterberg was a strategically risky spot on the Botswana border, but the availability of coking coal drew both Eskom and Iscor in an integrated fashion typical of South African industrialisation; and the location was consistent with border industry policy. The feasibility of their operations depended on technical innovations such as long wall mining and dry cooling of generators. As a result, in the early 1970s South possessed a national grid. And by the late 1980s the country’s defensive white nationalism had produced an electricity surplus with the newly completed Majuba power station mothballed. Indeed, Eskom involved greater investment than the entire gold mining industry. Ballim identifies this as a period of authoritarian high modernism and so powerfal was Eskom that it had diplomatic clout.

From the mid-1980s the introduction of neo-conservative doctrine saw engineers displaced by businessmen and financiers. The engineers had concentrated on what was technically possible and relied on government funding. Their legacy was impressive: Matimba’s six generators ran for a continuous eighty days. And engineers reduced boiler repair from a turnaround time of 84 to 18 hours. But such technical initiative was disempowered by centralised bureaucratic control and in Ballim’s words the engineers had sounded a last hurrah. And as the author wrily comments, infrastructure is invisible until it breaks down.

Medupi, like Kusile in Mpumalanga, has been an emblem of the post-apartheid condition. Some would attribute its problems to bones found on the site and restless ancestral spirits. Less ethereal analysis blames corruption (improper payments to the ANC), state capture and incompetence for delays of years. Medupi was hastily planned in a period of crisis, avoided a number of environmental protection precautions and required advanced technology such as dry cooling and supercritical boilers. The latter needed mirror welding for which skills were lacking in South Africa. Cost overruns meant that the project fell behind in concert with gold mining’s decline. And instead of mass job creation the project produced temporary, low-skill employment and was the site of violent strikes.

Medupi was scheduled to go online in 2013, but completed only in August 2021. A week later there was an explosion. Ballim describes the Medupi story as ‘almost comical’.

The author correctly concludes that electricity supply is not only a developmental imperative, but a measure of political health; so, Eskom’s recent dysfunction threatens democracy itself. It is also the world’s worst producer of sulphur dioxide; and a culprit regarding carbon emissions. A strong lobby within the ANC wishes to persist with coal-based generation, which may account for Eskom’s deplorably lukewarm attitude to renewables.

Ballim touches on other pertinent matters such as early attempts to integrate worker housing (especially at the inoperative Majuba) and create a permanent rather than a migrant workforce (the Riekert Commission, 1979); phase out the hostel system; and promote local black staff. Labour law reform (the Wiehahn Commission, also 1979) and the development of independent black unions are also explained.

But interesting as these issues are, the reader may battle to identify a consistent and coherent thread to this book.

Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld