Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.” – Seneca, letter XXVIII.
Our coal situation is like the satirical movie Don’t Look Up where a catastrophic meteorite is heading our way. Common sense plans are ditched for outlandish ideas. This is pure nihilism that even common sense cannot undo.
Our beliefs can ruin us as individuals as they can the lives of others, and if we do not reframe the world, we will be blinded forever by false beliefs. But there are still others who hold on to hope and pray that those with false beliefs will change their ways. Yet, repeated offences from carriers of the same beliefs should now be received with scepticism and we must put a pause on hope.
Two opposing beliefs must meet their fate – clash and be irreconcilable.
We are faced with that prospect now with the fate of Eskom. There are no white knights (no pun intended) riding a chariot to save us as the job cannot be assigned to a single figure we so mythologise that we believe they can ride out every storm. Eskom has had 12 CEOs now, with Andre de Ruyter being the last. It is also wholly unreasonable to expect one person who himself does not come from within the African National Congress network and political class to save the day. We can undertake an endless lobotomy of what happened to De Ruyter, but it will serve no value. The political sword had struck at the heads of several CEOs, and it would seem that the resignation was not enough, as it was followed by a cynical cyanide poisoning of De Ruyter designed to scare off any good person wanting to put up his or her hand for Thuma Mina.
It is purely delusional and psychotic to think that machines that are cranking with old tubes, failing engines and broken belts can be rescued from their inevitable demise. The machines are long dead and being stripped for spare parts by a well embedded dark web of corruption and incompetence. Eskom as it stands is not limping along but deteriorating fast into nonexistence.
There may be delusional men and women who think they can fix not only the old cranky machines but repair the masochistic politics that pull Eskom from one side to the other. Eskom’s ultimate problem is a political one. Every right or wrong turn Eskom has made in the recent past and distant past has hung on to the quality of political wisdom that was provided or not provided.
Political leadership, after all, is a function of the social class and networks that receive their ‘wisdom’ from a closed network of advisers and whisperers of intrigue. Networks that are official, unofficial, elected and unelected serve as competing sources of knowledge and information about the world. Yes, and even latter-day Rasputins have the ear of madmen – sometimes extending to the Palaces in Moscow.
What politicians hear, read or self-evaluate is still dependent on their quality of judgment and the actions they take. The challenges that people in power will always be wrestling with are three things: staying in power, balancing interests (and here the balance of forces does matter), and how information and knowledge are treated in decision-making.
The mark of leadership is how a skilled political figure or CEO navigates these tensions and preserves the common good.
The thing about Eskom is that we have known that we need more power for at least 20 years now. Perhaps the mistake was still to hold on to the model of a centralised power system and conferring all authority over the electricity system to a single Minister, with Eskom holding on to the system.
Any system that is a network in which all other systems are interlinked and built around must have antifragility and prudence as a core feature of such a system. The system must be able to bounce back with ease and with greater resilience. Eskom is the system and sits within a system (its political landscape and single fuel source dependence) that lacks systemic prudence and antifragility. No reasonable human can fix a beast of such size and complexity, especially if it is layered with an unpredictable burden of the intrigue of resource nationalism and rent-seeking.
We can turn Seneca’s poignant point as a challenge for us – it does not matter where we ultimately arrive at but what we have has to look different from what it was before. The obsession with Eskom is not unwarranted, as the failure of Eskom, as without energy our economy is shattered and so will be the lives of many people. The obsession, though, has distracted us from pushing, if not quietly but certainly radically, the shape of the future system – it is already moving irrespective of what the politicians believe.
We will have to shift to the new in the midst of a systemic crisis.
The evolution of South Africa’s future energy system is not yet a crescendo but it will be arriving at different places at different times, perhaps fragmented, unmanaged and unequal. You only need to take a bird’s-eye view by running a drone over the sky and the image of the future is an exploding grassroots of self- generation. That desire to break away from the centre is not too far off and will dislodge the coal addicts, but we as society may still have to pay the price of foolish doggedness and the obscenity of poor judgment made for the sake of very narrow interests.