Why aren’t we protesting Eskom?

Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on email

I’ve lost count of how many hours of what could have otherwise been productive days I’ve lost to loadshedding.

For the last few days, I’ve gone to bed in darkness and woken up without any power. Work schedules are out the window, and I’ve been helping keep local fast-food companies afloat as I can’t cook without electricity.
We’ve been suffering on and off loadshedding since 2007, and it has been clear that Eskom has been a bad egg since the 1980s. Over the last few years, loadshedding has become endemic, and it’s almost a miracle we’ve dodged grid collapse so many times.
But what miracle sees a so-called industrialised country faced with rolling blackouts that further exacerbate our economic collapse?
I’ve written extensively about Eskom in the past, analysed its history, and identified the myriad of problems causing its collapse.
What is clear is that electricity generation needs to be privatised. The root of all Eskom’s problems is that it is a state-owned monopoly. It only functioned during Apartheid because of an abundance of cheap coal, cheap labour, and lack of demand. And even with all that, it still wasn’t ideal. Eskom (then known as Escom) was kept afloat with state-backed loans that kept on piling higher and higher, as the utility failed to properly account for future demand and even the need for maintenance.
Eskom was almost privatised twice. Once in the 80s, and again in the 90s. The first attempt was an effort by the old National Party to deny the ANC power over electricity in the country. The second was in line with the ANC’s forays into reasonable policymaking with GEAR.
Both did not come to fruition. Eskom remained a state monopoly as trade unions and communists opposed privatisation. The Electricity Act remained, stubbornly disallowing any private entity from generating power to feed into the grid. And even with compromises that have allowed some private generation, this has been alongside arbitrary caps and regulations.
As a state monopoly, Eskom is faced with a cavalcade of state interference and corrupt procurement that drives up the cost of electricity. And even without the incompetence of its political appointees, Eskom still faces structural problems. Without competition, Eskom lacks the incentive to perform a good job, a source of information to compare prices, and an alternative when it fails.
In a free market, a company is incentivised to perform well because it only succeeds if it does so. Eskom is rewarded regardless of (non)performance. It doesn’t need to produce electricity adequately because it’s paid regardless. It does not have to worry about being replaced because it has a protected mandate. And it cannot determine a fair price to charge for electricity because there are no competitors to compare prices to.
And throughout all of this, I must ask: why is no one protesting Eskom?
South Africa is rife with protests. Protests over service delivery, free education, statues, and all manner of varied topics. But why hasn’t there been any substantial protests or demonstrations to pressure the government to truly solve the Eskom crisis?
Last year, Eskom workers illegally striked for higher pay, worsening loadshedding. They were rewarded for these illegal protests – signalling essential workers that they can basically extort money out of taxpayers’ and consumers’ coffers.
These workers and Eskom as a whole hold a criminally powerful position over South Africans. We need electricity to work and live, and we have no legal alternative to Eskom and its entitled workforce.
I think we’ve grown used to just dealing with failure. But we shouldn’t.
When Eskom workers strike for higher pay that they truly do not deserve, we should counter-protest them. Why, as consumers, should we be responsible for paying incompetent and capricious Eskom workers more money while they fail to deliver a reliable service?
And above that, we should be truly protesting Eskom and the government for not making any real concerted effort to solve our electricity crisis.
Eskom must be privatised. Electricity generation and perhaps even distribution must be put in the hands of the private sector. And consumers and taxpayers must be respected for being the real people who keep the lights on. Because, without us, there’d be no money at all.
I urge opposition parties and civil society to lead the way in protesting Eskom. Counter-protest the entitled strikes of Eskom workers, picket the Eskom offices and government buildings. And let the state and its monopoly know our discontent. If there was ever a real reason to protest something in the new South Africa – this is it. And, perhaps, it is just what we need for the government to finally do the right thing.


Nicholas Woode-Smith, an author, economic historian and political analyst, is a contributing author for the Free Market Foundation.


Join our
Mailing List

* indicates required
/ ( mm / dd )