In 1972 the lights went off in Britain. The showdown between the National Union of Mineworkers and Edward Heath's Conservative government led to rolling electricity blackouts, the three day working week and general misery for millions of people. I well remember poking at my dinner plate in the dim school dining room candlelight, wondering how a supposedly modern country could hit such a low. Now, 42 years later, I am beset with the same thoughts.
This time it's not union intransigence but years of neglect and under-investment that are to blame. Eskom was once a beacon of efficiency and management excellence, producing cheap power using South Africa's seemingly endless supplies of coal. Then, around 1998, the ANC got clever and asked the private sector to invest in new power stations, expecting demand to outstrip supply within a decade. Thabo Mbeki's ANC was caught up in the fervour of public-private partnerships, one of the planks of the Growth and Redistribution Programme, a forerunner to the NDP. Trouble was, electricity subsidies meant private investment didn't pay.
Alec Erwin, former union leader and then Minister of Public Enterprises, didn't take the hint. He shelved the plan but didn't implement Plan B. What he failed to realise was that demand kept on increasing and very soon the country was heading for an energy crunch. It hit us ten years later with the first bout of load-shedding and we are continuing to pay the price. Medupi and Kusile are three years behind schedule and Eskom is running out of money to pay for diesel to run the emergency turbines. They are short of 4 GB of electricity,
So here I sit, admittedly having just enjoyed a lovely Friday evening braai at home by candlelight, with my laptop battery running down, WiFi off and my neighbour's generator pumping out foul diesel fumes to keep his lights on. It's a miracle MTN is still going, enabling me to load this truncated post to my readers out there no doubt also struggling in the darkness. Nature has come to the rescue, a full moon shining light onto the patio so I can clean away the plates without stumbling over the dog.
As Helen Zille suggested in her latest SA Today newsletter, power struggles in the ANC have taken on a new meaning.