South Africa's energy utility is in dire straits. On the 11th of February 2019, the utility's engineers implemented Stage 4 load shedding on South Africa's main energy grid. Stage 4 load shedding indicated that the country was short 4,000MW of the peak capacity requirement of 27,000 MW due to what the utility called ‘continued pressure’ on the national grid.
The utility has 45,000 MW of energy capacity installed, but cannot meet the peak demand of 27,000MW. Experts say the current situation reeks of gross incompetence at the very top levels of management at Eskom.
The country has never experienced Stage 4 load shedding in its history but is well acquainted with Stage 2 which the country saw intermittently in 2018. The new stage meant that South Africans would see their lights turned off twelve times in the space of four days.
Eskom pointed to the fact that there are six generators not functioning correctly in the country. Moreover, the utility's mega power stations —Medupi and Kusile — reportedly have major design and technical flaws that are causing the stations to underperform. What is clear is plant breakdowns, a lack of plant maintenance, a shortage of trustworthy engineers, and poor management of the energy grid, in general, has led to an energy crisis in South Africa.
The impact of the power cuts reportedly costs the country R2.5 billion (USD $181 million) in business revenue every day the lights are off.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa recently delivered a State of the Nation address wherein he declared that Eskom would be unbundled. It would be broken up from one large organization and divided into three organizations.
This seems to have rung the alarm bells of the National Union of Mineworkers, the National Union of Metalworkers, the South African Communist Party and the Economic Freedom Fighters. They believe that the utility should continue to be state-owned, and assert that the unbundling of the organization points to the likelihood of privatization in the near future. If privatization follows, the previously mentioned groups may protest.
The financial problems Eskom has undergone in the last decade has led to incredible uncertainty for electrical engineers across the organization. The utility was R40 billion rand in debt in 2008. Ten years later, the debt has risen to over R400 billion.
Eskom has also been helping electrical engineering students complete their tertiary education with financial assistance in the form of bursaries. Upon graduation, the electrical engineers would have to work for Eskom to pay off the bursary. However, graduates who received bursaries from the parastatal in the last four years were informed at the beginning of 2019 that the salaried work they were to do was no longer available due to the financial trouble the organization is in.
Most worryingly, the utility has asked the prospective engineering staff that cannot work for the organization after graduation to sign an addendum to postpone the working obligation until they have recovered financially.
This means the graduates must either wait for the parastatal to turn a profit, or must go and find a job in the industry - but might face a disruption when the parastatal asks for them to return to work to repay their debt. Alternatively, the organization could write the employment contracts off. Nonetheless, the utility is disrupting the lives of electrical engineers in South Africa and stringing them along, leaving them in a state of limbo in their careers.
President Ramaphosa says that he is ‘shocked and angry’ at the events that have transpired in the Eskom debacle. He has also been quoted saying that the parastatal can no longer go about their business with all of their eggs in one basket. Diversifying the way Eskom does business seems to be in the country’s best interest.
However, privatization is not on the cards just yet. That, according to Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan who told media:
"In the Sona last week, the president did not talk anything about privatization. We are going to bring in external power stations engineers, get an independent audit on exactly what's going on so that we put Eskom back on track and give South Africans the assurance that we have an entity that is able to give us the energy security we require.”
“Load-Shedding Has Entered a Third Consecutive Day and Continues to Affect Most South Africans.” YouTube, YouTube, 12 Feb. 2019, youtu.be/k4vLv0f8b2U.
Dentlinger, Lindsay. “Pravin Gordhan Concedes Eskom Is Facing Massive Problems.” Eyewitness News, Eyewitness News | EWN, 12 Feb. 2019, ewn.co.za/2019/02/12/pravin-gordhan-concedes-eskom-is-facing-massive-problems.