The fast-moving nature of developments at Eskom following the November 2 release of Thuli Madonsela’s ‘State of Capture’ report has left many of us expecting the unexpected. To steal a phrase from some post-Brexit and post-Trump-win commentators, it is as though “all the world’s black swans have come home to roost”.
Despite strong opposition to Brian Molefe on a range of issues – from his hostility towards renewables and his love affair with nuclear to his aggressive stance towards Eskom’s traditional coal suppliers, some media commentators and the banks that closed the accounts of Gupta-linked companies – his position at Eskom, prior to the report, looked more than secure. Some even speculated he was only likely to be dislodged by the Finance Minister’s position becoming vacant.
Prior to his November 11 resignation, Molefe had been given much credit, rightly or wrongly, for the operational and financial stabilisation of the State-owned utility.
Indeed, under his watch, the dreaded threat of load-shedding diminished. And had it not been for Madonsela’s report, Molefe could well have come in for praise on November 3 for some fairly decent interim financial statements – results that were coupled with the interesting announcement that Eskom was now desperate to sell more of its product to industrial customers in light of an expectation that its surplus would continue to grow until the early 2020s. In other words, Eskom was putting out a welcome mat to those very same customers on which it had leaned so heavily (through forced power reductions and higher tariffs) during the awful load- shedding years.
But what now for Eskom? Much will certainly depend on the nature and temperament of the new leadership, at both board level and executive level. As Molefe proved during his short tenure, the force of a CEO’s personality can truly shape and move an organisation, even one as established and large as Eskom.
Here, much rests on the shoulders of Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown, who must not only unearth suitable candidates for Eskom’s depleted board but also, with the help of Cabinet, offer guidance to the board regarding the shareholder’s CEO selection criteria.
Many questions will have to be asked and answered. Should the board look internally or externally for a permanent replacement? Who should take up the reins in the interim? Does Eskom and South Africa require a CEO intent on restoring past glory, or should he or she be ready to embrace and shape the changes sweeping through the sector? Should the candidate be a pair of safe hands, or an individual capable of reimagining the role of Eskom in a sector where new technologies and ideas are starting to have a real impact?
Without doubt, there is a need, given the importance of Eskom to the economy, to act with some urgency. Nevertheless, this need for speed should not be used as an excuse for failing to address these fundamental questions.