Privatisation is not the solution to SA’s electricity and other woes

Last week the outrage was all the R938 that Eskom is planning to charge consumers who have invested in solar electricity solutions for the privilege of staying connected to the grid. It’s not new and it’s not entirely unfair either. Very few solar users actually go all the way off the grid because this can triple or quadruple the price of an average installation.

Most solar users still rely on Eskom for the heavy lifting on the geysers, especially, and the other hungry appliances, but from the anguished responses, this was one outrage too far. The Karens went all the way to top management for this one. A tax for harnessing the sun? Take it up with God. 

Pinning a warrant to the Pearly Gates is an interesting legal gambit, but you can understand the anguish. It’s been 15 years now and it just keeps getting worse. We have to pay more, but use less to ensure the utility can break even but not keel over. It’s from the same school of logic as voting for the ANC to miraculously self-correct if it remains in office.

We can’t afford for Eskom to fail – whether on a macro level of the country and the economy or the micro level of actually totally going off grid and relying on what the Karens of this world believe should be our birth right.

On Monday night, the problem became a lot less when Cyril the Mute found his voice and effectively threw the kitchen sink at the problem. Now corporates can make their own power, the ordinary consumer (if they can afford the outlay) can go ahead and install solar – and all of them can sell their excess power back. Eskom can hire who it likes to go ahead to fix the old fleet and keep it running and the cops can arrest all the bad guys shorting the system, dropping bolts into nuclear reactors and/or blowing up power pylons.

Suddenly it’s all motherhood and apple pie. Or is it? The private sector works and works very well for those who can afford it. Cynics might argue that’s precisely why government is so hellbent on penalising it for the failure of the state. There’s been a lemming like rush for private schools, private healthcare, private security (and now fire engines in Joburg), private pension funds, private housing estates and now even private prosecutions. They’re all testimony to the abject failure in many respects of public education, the police, the NPA, government hospitals and the imminent collapse of most of our municipalities.

There is a real danger that in saving Eskom, government might be opening the floodgates to the irreversible privatisation of power supply. Privatisation and competition are great on paper, but not often in practice. There’s a reason why South Africa has some of the highest data costs and bank fees in the world.

In a world of incredible inequality, we need more haves, not a world made up of have-yachts and have-nots. And all of need to see (and have) the light.

Originally published in The Saturday Star on 30 July 2022.