The Jacob Marley column: Closer ties

September 5th, 2014, Published in Articles: Energize



A recent front-page headline in a well-known business daily stated: “State set for tighter control of Eskom”. The article referred to the newly appointed CEO reportedly telling Parliament that Eskom would be “more tightly controlled by the department in future”.  Unsure of the implications of that, I sought the counsel of the Ghost of Christmas Future, who can usually be relied upon to lift a corner of the veil of his domain to allow us to peer into the unknowable.

Indeed, the obliging Ghost transported me to to a splendid suite of offices in the capital, from a corner of which I was privileged, unobserved, to glimpse a future working session of the minister and his team.

The private secretary coughed deferentially as he announced the chief executive of Eskom and his delegation for the regular monthly account meeting. The minister waved them vaguely to a conference table whilst continuing to listen to his phone. The visitors made themselves as comfortable as possible while unpacking several substantial volumes of detailed reports, presentations and tender documents. The chief executive fidgeted uncomfortably and put his finger in his collar to ease his breathing.

“Well, gentlemen, what do you have for me this month?” the minister said with mock jocularity as he sat down heavily at the head of the table and thumbed the detailed regular report. He stopped when he spotted a long list of names and studied it briefly. “I think you need to sharpen your pencils on your appointments. Concentrate on transformation, you know. Have you enough doctorals? The DG here will give you excellent references. We have lots of deployees available.”

“We’ll take that on board,” said the chief executive with a dark glance at his human capital executive. “What we really need your advice on, honourable minister, is how to resolve the strike. Tricky, because we cannot renege on your last month’s offer of free housing for all. They now all want executive style housing. One for all, all for one, you know.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” said the minister. “Why make an issue over nothing?”

“The unions are holding out for executive government-style housing,” pointed out the chief of human capital. “At presidential level of course, since they’re all equal. The problem is, we don’t have enough land to provide so many 50-hectare homesteads, even if cost was not an issue”.

“It only becomes an issue if you allow it,” cut in the departmental DG when the minister seemed at a loss to deal with such incompetence. “You could always prune security expenditure. Our fellows from Public Works could help you dig out of a hole. What about this nonsense of building bicycle sheds instead of those Russian nuclear reactors?”

“Well, the reactors are rather larger than anticipated, if you recall,” explained the chief of construction. “No room for lock-up garages and so on, and we already had to cut the scale of the ministerial guest house because of over-expenditure. The pool will have to go, I’m afraid”.

“Let’s cut the cackle and get down to real business,’ harrumphed the minister. “What’s this about weld failures in the steam generators?” The third chief engineer launched into a lengthy and detailed exposé of the art of helium-argon-arc welding and the need to carry out detailed x-ray examination of all welds, and how more than half the welds had failed the test.

The mister turned a highly-paid consultant at the end of the table and commanded: “Come, Doctor, tell us how you would resolve this issue. Show us your worth.”

“Already done, minister,” replied the expert, smirking while waving a thick report. “Here are the full details. I took the liberty of looking into the company doing the x-ray inspections when I found they had been illegally appointed. So I went to the same firm who did that stirling work on the reinforcing of that bridge which later collapsed. Nobody could point a finger at them though, they were so well connected. They quoted fifty percent more, of course, but they came out tops, with one hundred percent of welds passing. So we’re clear, no thanks to Eskom.”

“See, that’s quality work,” said the minister triumphantly while the Eskom team drooped. But the finance director thought he could still save the day. “There are still a few financial – eh – conundrums, with your permission, minister. As you know, our credit rating dropped again, our cash flow has ground to a halt and our funding program is in the pits. No problem. We have come up with a plan to turn the business around.” He waved a weighty tome. “I take it you’ve had an opportunity to study it.”

The minister nodded gravely but vaguely. The deputy DG, who had previously been redeployed to the Land Bank, took the cue. “Indeed, honourable minister. All this talk about restructuring and privatisation and selling off generating plant is very well but it won’t help us as a developmental state. We need something far more fundamental”.

Unfortunately, at that point the lights went out and the meeting came to an abrupt end. I am therefore sorry to say, Sir, that I cannot shed any light on the future of an Eskom with closer ties to the government, or what result such an intimate level of accounting will have.

I’m therefore afraid your erudite readers will have to do that for themselves and until they so, Sir,

I remain your humble and obedient servant

Jacob Marley







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