I’ve seen a lot of knee-jerk reactions by my white friends on Facebook… to the latest statements by Jacob Zuma. I don’t have a transcript of his speech, so I’m going to have to quote another website here:
“The problem (is) the energy was structured racially to serve a particular race, not the majority,” Zuma told delegates at the Young Communist League’s congress in Cape Town.
He said the ANC had inherited the power utility from the previous regime which had only provided electricity to the white minority.
Twenty years into democracy, 11 million households had access to electricity, double the number in 1994, Zuma said in a speech prepared for delivery.
Government was taking action to address the energy situation.
The development of the Medupi and Kusile power stations was being accelerated in order to bring them on to the grid.
“Projects in the region with the potential to produce power in the short term are being assessed and we continue to evaluate options with the intention to maximise all sources of energy including coal, gas, nuclear, solar and renewable energy options, Zuma said.
Many people are plenty pissed off by those flippant comments, and I can understand why, but is he really wrong?
I happen to know that twenty years ago, when I studied electrical engineering, this country’s infrastructure and capability to distribute electrical power was already thirty years behind where it should have been. I know this because one of my lecturers had been an Eskom employee for many years. In fact, twenty years ago he predicted the situation we have today. (Somewhere Mr Borril is saying “I told you so”.)
But I am sure that there was more than one person who knew what was going to happen… Mr Zuma is doing a great job of deflecting the blame, but not fully taking responsibility for the consequences of increasing the electrical power distribution for the last twenty years without addressing the known fact that our limited power stations would not be able to meet the demand.
He is absolutely correct that apartheid is to blame… at least it was to blame twenty years ago. He admits that double the households today have electricity, compared to twenty years ago. Thus it is no accident that the same limited supply is now being used for double the demand. Obviously that couldn’t possibly work, without even taking into consideration the known fact that the power stations were already struggling to meet half the current demand twenty years ago. (Maybe it’s a little-known fact. But I knew it; Eskom management knew it; government surely knew it.)
Excuse me for repeating myself; I’ve closed both of the previous two paragraphs with a statement about the same known fact… Not sure if it creates the intended emphasis or just comes off as annoying redundancy. But my point is this: It is not sensible to double the load while using the same supply, especially if that supply is already strained; then blaming the only logical outcome on the past. It’s a cop-out that insults the intelligence. You don’t need to have studied electrical engineering to know this. Seriously.
So what has been done in the meantime? Very little, I’m afraid. A few years ago, our electricity bills included a subsidy for poor areas, so that previously disadvantaged people would not have to pay for their electricity. That was a good plan, as long as provision was made for the extra demand, but nothing was done to increase the electricity supply. Zuma’s plan is too little too late. (And it’s not even his plan. He’s taking credit for something that is already happening.) Two power stations will not be nearly enough to fix this problem, a problem that should have been addressed some twenty years ago. Guesstimating it takes about twelve years to build one power station – and it surely does take less than twenty so my accuracy or lack thereof is irrelevant – if three were built simultaneously, starting twenty years ago, this situation would not be happening today. Make no mistake – we’d still be in trouble, but we would perhaps not be in the situation that we face now – with infrastructure that is effectively fifty years behind where it should be.
In conclusion, the answer is yes and no. We must never forget how bad the situation used to be: Over 80% of our population was oppressed and were treated as if they were subhuman. Twenty years is not long enough to fix everything that the old regime broke. I don’t believe it’s right for Jacob Zuma to blame everything on the past, taking no responsibility for the twenty years that could have been used to address our lacking power supply. But then again, the government had many other responsibilities. It’s an over-simplification to pin all the blame on the ANC for not fixing the mess that was created by the old regime. It also doesn’t help to cry racism and assume that all he says is untrue. It is not his job alone to fix it; we are all in this sinking ship together. Maybe we should quit complaining and criticizing destructively, and see what we can do to plug the holes. Or maybe it’s time to abandon ship as so many of my friends and relatives have done; I don’t know. But personally, I am still optimistic and hopeful that the situation can improve, and that overall South Africa is a better place than it used to be.
Update: Interestingly I see that according to LinkedIn, the lecturer I mentioned is currently employed as a senior engineer at Eskom. I take this as a good sign… it means that merit is now more important than skin colour. (Actually affirmative action never effected me anyway.) This is a good sign. I hope he doesn’t mind that I paraphrased his words from twenty years ago without permission. Anyway, I am not giving his first name. (And I’ve attempted to contact him. It would be great if I could get more information to validate my anecdotal memory of his words, perhaps including some real information that is current, rather than relying on my possibly flawed memory.)