South Africa: Ramaphosa ally Gordan in the eye of Eskom blackout storm

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Monday, 11 July 2022 11:41

South Africa Power Cuts
Ndofhiwa Mabasa, studying by candle light to prepare for her national senior certificate examinations as load shedding hits stage 3 in Vosloorus township, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

One of President Cyril Ramaphosa's closest allies is under political attack amid the worst electric grid failures since the ANC came into power in 1994.

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who is responsible for power utility Eskom, has come under stinging criticism, even from his erstwhile allies.

Political insiders however say the infighting is unlikely to affect Ramaphosa’s chances of re-election at the ANC conference in December – chiefly because no real challenger has thus far emerged.

The jostling within the ANC camp is, however, aimed at influencing the selection of those serving on the party’s top leadership structures. It is also about competing business interests in energy provision, with some preferring an emphasis on coal, while others – notably Ramaphosa’s brother-in-law, Patrice Motsepe – are heavily invested in clean energy and renewables.

Questions from his peers

Gordhan, who played a key role in the battle against ‘state capture’ by former President Jacob Zuma and his allies, faced questions from fellow ANC national executive committee members – at an emergency meeting at the beginning of the month – about the power outages, which have been lasting up to 10 hours a day for the past three weeks.

Gordhan submitted a report at the meeting blaming an unprotected strike by Eskom employees, as well as corruption, sabotage and losses suffered by the energy utility under Zuma’s government, when the coffers of a number of big state institutions were stripped bare by corrupt officials.

There are big mafias that provide coal to different plants at inflated prices, and De Ruyter has been closing their taps

Some NEC members complained that Gordhan’s report contained nothing new, while others criticised him for delays in delivering the report. Some ANC members feel he is too slow to account to the party, which, in theory at least, is responsible for ‘deploying’ him to his ministerial portfolio.

Another of Ramaphosa’s key allies in his 2017 election, Gwede Mantashe (the minister of mineral resources and energy), recently pointed the finger back at Gordhan when critics said Mantashe should shoulder the blame for the power cuts as he has been dragging his feet on enabling of alternative and independent power sources. Mantashe has denied responsibility saying Eskom had the generation capacity, but needed proper maintenance, which is Gordhan’s responsibility.

Ramaphosa has been on an investment drive since he became president in 2018 and wants a sustainable power supply to achieve his goals. He has also argued in favour of more power sources.

A year ago, the president openly overruled Mantashe by announcing that private companies can generate up to 100MW of their own power without a licence. Mantashe wanted a 10MW cap.

Some officials have also called for Eskom to be placed directly under Mantashe’s portfolio.

This week, Nomvula Mokonyane (ANC organiser and an NEC member) openly criticised Gordhan for shielding Eskom CEO André de Ruyter from criticism. De Ruyter was appointed in January 2020 to turn the ailing utility around.

Mokonyane told Eyewitness News that Gordhan should “appreciate that he is part of a collective, a collective that seeks to contribute towards solutions for this country”.

Ramaphosa under fire

Gordhan does, however, enjoy Ramaphosa’s protection, and any attack on him is also construed as an attack on the president. It also suggests fissures in Ramaphosa’s camp.

“It is often said that the people who like the president don’t like the people the president likes,” Madia says of talk within the party.

There is some fragmentation in the Ramaphosa camp

A party insider who does not want to be named says: “CR [Cyril Ramaphosa]’s corner is not a homogenous one… There are various tendencies and groups with their own sub-agenda.” This refers in part to ideological beliefs, but mostly to business interests.

“There are those in CRs circle that want a total or near-total privatisation of Eskom,” the insider says, but Gordhan, who was previously a member of the South African Communist Party, doesn’t agree.

There is also an element of racial politics within ANC circles as well as from outside parties like the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, who believe those in the key economic portfolios should be black Africans.

One of Gordhan’s allies believes the hostilities against Gordhan came as a result of him “stepping on toes” in his efforts to rid Eskom of corruption. “There are big mafias that provide coal to different plants at inflated prices, and De Ruyter has been closing their taps,” he says.

Recent allegations that Ramaphosa failed to report the theft of around $4m in cash from furniture at his Phala Phala game farm in the Limpopo province have opened him and his allies up to further attacks.

Even those who have been sympathetic to the president thus far have started to be more critical, demanding that he give a proper explanation for what happened. “There is some fragmentation in the Ramaphosa camp,” the Gordhan ally says. “The farm situation is not helping it. It has opened a flank and people will attack that flank for as long as he can’t provide a credible explanation for what went down.”

Gordhan has also recently come under criticism for reportedly failing to consult on the selection of a strategic equity partner for the ailing South African Airways, despite saying that he obtained independent advice from corporate finance specialists RMB (previously known as Rand Merchant Bank).

Heckled

Gordhan has also faced criticism from people outside the ANC.

On 7 July, Gordhan was shouted down by a group of young people after a lecture about state-owned enterprises at the Wits School of Governance in Johannesburg. The young people did not display party colours, but are said to have been from various opposition parties as well as the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Students.

In his lecture, Gordhan had warned against what he said was a new political grouping wanting to return the country to corruption and a new form of state capture. However, the young people confronted Gordhan about his time as a minister in Zuma’s cabinet – also in the finance portfolio – during what Zuma’s detractors term the “nine wasted years” of state capture.

Gordhan faced similar confrontations in the run-up to Ramaphosa’s election as party president in 2017.

In a statement later that night, Gordhan blamed the attack on “the unruly behaviour of a small clique hell-bent on disrupting the public lecture”. He compared them to the Twitter bots that were activated and coordinated by PR company Bell Pottinger during Zuma’s reign to intimidate his opponents.

The Ramaphosa camp is united by anti-corruption and not really by some world view or a commonly shared political project

Gordhan denied being kicked out of the lecture, calling the rumour “fake news and disinformation”.

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says those within the Ramaphosa camp have always had “multiple agendas”, and Gordhan is no exception.

The Ramaphosa camp “is united by anti-corruption and not really by some world view or a commonly shared political project”, he says, adding that it resembles “a rudderless ship just improvising in heavy seas”.

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