Fanning the flames

Holding government to account should be considered a civic duty

Fanning the flames

A hair salon near to me burnt to the ground recently. An investigation found that a stylist had left a hair dryer on – an easy mistake to make during bouts of load shedding. I don’t need to explain the economic consequences of this for the business owner and the landlord.

Everyone has a load shedding story. The cost of this latest round is monstrous. The Efficient Group estimates that if it were not for Eskom’s failings, SA’s economy could be between 8% and 10% larger. It’s hard to grasp the scale of this.

Will firing Eskom’s leadership team steady the ship? Will the energy crisis be solved faster by someone other than De Ruyter and his team? Some people claim so. But how does swapping out one hard-working and decent management group with an unknown team solve a crisis whose seeds were sown 20 years ago, and then watered with a toxic concoction of government-policy failure, malfeasance and corporate-governance dereliction? Add in grand theft, artificially low prices, under-investment and lack of proper maintenance and you have the recipe for today’s disaster. And yes, blame can be apportioned and distilled down to one thing – an epic failure of leadership. Except that by now you will appreciate that this cannot be laid at the door of one person or management team – but rather successive leaders who compounded the problems over time. And because Eskom’s ultimate shareholder is the government, that’s where blame needs to rest.

As that shareholder, government has made the board and executive management appointments. It has set policy and influenced capital allocation decisions that in the private sector are made by the executive. Government must shoulder the responsibility for the mess that is Eskom. And Eskom is not the only state company in a mess. Aside from collective hand wringing, what do we do?

It sounds so simple but the recent appointment of a full 13-person board at Eskom, that possesses relevant skills, is a good start. Explicit support by government for the current management team is also helpful. But there’s a very long way to go before Eskom, and SA with it, is stable.

The bigger question is how to avoid the crisis in the first place? Corruption, inefficiency and SOEs go hand in hand – around the world, – yet SA remains wedded to the concept, which makes me think about leadership, or rather, poor leadership and mediocrity. Why is mediocrity tolerated across so many walks of life in SA? Why is it accepted in our schools? Where is our hunger for education – the best possible?

I was fascinated to read recently about China’s national civil-service examination, known as guokao. For more than 1 200 years, anyone who wanted a government job in imperial China had to pass a test. It wasn’t just any test – it was a system designed to select the most studious and learned candidates for appointment as bureaucrats, and it ensured that the government officials who served in the imperial court were learned and intelligent men, rather than just political supporters of the emperor, or relatives of officials. This system governed who would join the bureaucracy between 650 CE and 1905, when it was abolished, making it the world’s longest-lasting meritocracy. These exams are one of the principal reasons why education is so revered in Chinese culture today, and hence the guokao system has persisted in various guises. This year, 2.12 million registered for the test, with fewer than 100 000 likely to be employed.

This system is far from perfect – the uniformity of the examination encouraged conformity rather than new thinking. Despite debating all the characteristics of Chinese society, we need to acknowledge that the country took just 40 years to transform itself into one of the world’s largest economic superpowers, in the process eradicating extreme poverty for millions. It makes the Chinese appetite for quality education worthy of thought and discussion. Where are we going wrong?

By Sasha Planting