South Africa: Beware National State of Disaster

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The ANC have proposed declaring a national state of disaster in response to the ongoing energy crisis in South Africa. This is after facing intermittent rolling blackouts since as early as 2007. With the blackouts becoming borderline constant since 2019, and only getting worse with every year.

The ANC and government is right to call the state of electricity in this country a disaster. But declaring a national state of disaster, and everything that involves, will not fix the problem. If anything, it will make it far worse.

National states of disasters grant the government and particular officials within it emergency powers, while limiting our constitutional rights and allowing them to bypass necessary restrictions to their power. COVID-19 was declared a national state of disaster. As a result, we faced a heavy-handed lockdown that arbitrarily saw everything from cigarettes and alcohol to deli pies being banned by power-drunk politicians.

The lockdowns saw unparalleled destruction to our economy, while politicians allegedly profited from corrupt connections to smugglers benefiting from the bans. This is not to mention unscrupulous and malicious police and soldiers being let loose on our streets to abuse and exploit innocent civilians.

We still have not truly recovered physically, mentally or financially from the lockdowns and the misuse of government power.

A national state of disaster around electricity will not help. It will only open the doors for more abuse and corruption. Eskom is already a victim of almost unimaginable levels of corruption. Coal is stolen, employees are told to shutdown generators, sabotage is rife, and there are politicians profiting from all of this as they work with the saboteurs and the thieves.

Giving these same politicians even more power will just give them increasing levels of impunity to steal, sabotage and run Eskom and the grid into the ground.

But even if we lived in an alternative dimension where the politicians who would be put in charge of such a state of disaster are magically virtuous, it is still a bad idea.

The root of Eskom’s problems is its status as a state-owned monopoly. Even when run by honest workers (which is seldom), it still suffers from some intrinsic flaws.

It lacks competition, so therefore cannot be punished for its mistakes. It retains customers regardless. It also cannot learn from competitors and innovate to do better. There is no incentive for it to perform to a higher standard.

It suffers from a calculation problem, where its lack of competition and ability to receive state-funding at a whim prevents it from being able to properly determine the price of its product. This is exacerbated by corruption – which sees its expenses rise due to the purchasing of overpriced supplies.

And it will always become victim of political interference. From day one, Eskom (known then as Escom) has been a political tool by politicians and their cronies to achieve political aims. Back in the 1920s, it was a tool for the mining industry to force the electricity industry to provide unsustainably cheap electricity. In the 1990s, it was a tool to provide as much electricity as possible to as many people as possible – regardless of if they can pay or not.

And now, Eskom is a cash cow for the corrupt, and a symbol for racial nationalists.

Eskom should not be a political tool. It is far too important a utility to be put under control of vindictive and short-sighted politicians.

But as long as it is state-owned, it will face these problems again and again. And a national state of disaster will only make things worse. At least at present there is some sense of oversight. Opposition parties can campaign against mismanagement, journalists can investigate plants, and there has to be some level of transparency.

Currently, we have the rule of law to provide at least some sort of certainty and protection over our rights and the treatment of Eskom. Saboteurs and the corrupt have to act with at least some level of secrecy.

A national state of disaster would remove all those safeguards against tyranny. It would give those responsible for Eskom’s current destruction complete carte blanche to do whatever they want to the rapidly failing parastatal. Even destroy it. And they would – if it means a quick buck.

With the new emergency powers, practical attempts to fix the crisis will probably be halted. Private producers will be blocked, once again, lest they threaten the state’s stranglehold. The perpetrators of this disaster would become in charge of fixing it.

A national state of disaster would bring disaster to Eskom. You don’t hand a victim back to its abuser and expect them to heal.

There is only one solution to the crisis. Put electricity production in the hands of the private sector. Not the government who put us in this mess in the first place.

Author: Nicholas Woode-Smith,

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

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