The Jacob Marley column: Acting is no joke

June 11th, 2014, Published in Articles: Energize



Shame – as they say in the Beloved Country – shed a tear for anyone in an acting position. Take, for instance, the man who is now acting in charge of a once great electricity utility. Was he Shanghaied or was his arm twisted? Was he persuaded gently or was he made promises? Or was there some other (altruistic) reason? Vilified by virtually every pundit, decried by every rag, his supposed sins published for all to gloat over, one cannot but feel sorry for him, whatever the truth, if any.

Erudite readers with good memories will recall that some time ago I suggested that common sense should prevail by not appointing a non-CEO to head the electricity parastatal – and lo – my advice has been gracefully heeded. Acting, as we know, is the art of imitating without really doing anything. So acting is not the role of a CEO, for acting is often a question of juggling the serious and the ridiculous in order to make a living in difficult times. But believe me, Sir, that is no joke.

Just the fact that anyone acting in some capacity gets appointed (never mind by whom, and how) should earn him (or even her) our sympathy, since acting is an extremely demanding task. Perhaps those who made the appointment must share that sympathy, for one never knows who or what what may be lurking in the wings.

The prime rule, of course, is not, I say, not, rock the boat. Do not, repeat, do not touch anything the non-acting CEO would not have rocked. The temptation is there, but one wants to earn one’s golden handshake, does one not?

One cannot help but wonder why the appointment was so loudly denounced. After all, the newly appointed acting incumbent seems to have all the qualifications necessary to weather controversy. For one, it is clear that he can act. For another, serious observers should ask themselves what the level of price increases was which NERSA allowed during the new acting CEO’s tenure as chairman of that esteemed body compared with those granted later. That is no laughing matter.

Wasn’t SALGA successful in keeping the factitious municipalities in line during his spell at the helm? That was no joke. Did the largest labour federation in the country not get itself a handsome new head office at a tidy premium (do not ask for whom that road tolled) while he was there?

What about all the other supposed transgressions so expertly expounded upon by the Fourth Estate? I asked the good Ghost of Christmas Past about them and he says he remembers not much of front page calibre. There were the usual to-do’s, quite, but compared to those who make the front pages regularly these days, it pales to insignificance, does it not?

Bit shady, perhaps, but not as dark as it is during load shedding – of which we have had none, as of the writing of this. So perhaps one should reserve judgement lest the actor is replaced with a less-experienced stand-in (or stand-up, as the case may be). But ’tis too serious to be a joke.

Is one condemned because things happen on one’s watch that one is not aware of? Is an actor supposed to be perpetually watching the wings for building alterations while he is away overseas on important junkets?  Perhaps our man has not started off smelling of roses, but one has to admit he is not quite a titan arum, also known as the corpse flower. That would have created a real stink.

But seriously, how did Megawatt Park for instance, get to twice the size of Buckingham Palace or King Shaka Airport? How many people, earning humongous salaries, actually work there? I believe a wag once said (in a moment of comedy meant to be tragedy), at least a dozen: Four middle managers and twice that number of members of certain trade unions whom one should not name out of a sense of propriety, but who were on strike for a higher wage amid revelations that the utility paid the highest wages in the country.

No wonder then that we ran out of power with a full-time chief in charge in 2008. Maybe an actor would have done better by calling: “Is there an electrician in the house?” and getting an overwhelming response. Many hands make light work, so it might have saved the country and all of us a lot of money. So there might be hope for us yet, and one should not decry and debase this appointment lightly and before the overload switches have even tripped.

There may be other good reasons why one should laud the appointment of an acting CEO. After all, he is an Eskom board member and his colleagues might have felt that it would be a good idea to expose him to some of the heat in the kitchen for a change. That way, board meetings might become real theatrical tours de force instead of offering bored members a chance to catch forty winks. Now that would be no joke.

Perhaps the appointment is just a step up to greater things: A political deployment perhaps or a shot at becoming the CEO of the public broadcaster or the national airline. Who knows, maybe he is being groomed to take over the electricity industry in Africa’s largest economy in order to level the playing field. If one is ignorant of these important considerations, it is unfair to criticise the appointment based on known facts only.

It would therefore be exceedingly biased to judge the acting appointee before he bows off the stage at the end of his performance. Only then will we be able to judge whether he kept the lights on, and whether he performed economic miracles. Did he pander to the populace? Did he go begging for a bailout? Did he put his successor in the hot seat?  Did he make us laugh or cry? What did he actually do?

So I would respectfully suggest, Sir, that until we know the answers to these important questions in detail we can but wait patiently while I remain your humble and faithful servant,

Jacob Marley

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