Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan has refuted suggestions that government is interfering with the work of boards and executives at State-owned companies, such as Eskom, but has also indicated that he will not stand by should decisions be made that lead to significant job losses.
In response to questions posed by lawmakers during a briefing on the so-called Eskom Special Paper to the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises, Gordhan said there had been “no interference, as far as I’m concerned”.
“But if you [hear us say] ‘don’t fire 16 000 people’, and you consider that to be interference, well I’m sorry, we are going to interfere, because it matters whether you put 16 000 families into the street as far as the African National Congress is concerned.”
In a statement released supporting the appointment of Andre de Ruyter as the new Eskom CEO, Business Unity South Africa (Busa) appealed that government allow him the latitude to do the job of Eskom CEO “without interference”, warning that the country “cannot afford to lose another Eskom chief executive due to interference in its operations”.
Busa made reference in the statement to concerns, apparently expressed by the Eskom board and management, that government was placing short-term political interests above the sustainability of the business. “It is precisely this kind of interference under the Zuma administration, which created the crisis at Eskom in the first place.”
When asked by Engineering News Online to provide a specific recent example of when political interests had been placed above the sustainability of the business, Busa CEO Cas Coovadia pointed to the “delay in appointing a professional CEO”. Eskom and government set a self-imposed deadline of the end of October for securing a new permanent CEO and De Ruyter would commence duties only on January 15, 2020.
Gordhan said that he was sensitive to the governance frameworks that guided interaction between the shareholder Minister and the State-owned companies falling under his area of responsibility. “But ultimately nobody is going to ask who is board member number eight when something goes wrong. They're going to ask, who’s the Minister?”
Gordhan urged labour, business, government and communities to come together to find different ways of redeploying those Eskom employees whose jobs could be affected by the decommissioning of the older power stations.
Already some workers were being transferred from stations such as Komati, which is facing decommissioning, to the Kusile plant, which is in the process of being ramped up. “We also have vacancies on the generation side that need to be filled and the board has created scope for 200 positions, some of which will be filled by people from the older power stations.”
In addition, Gordhan was confident that some Eskom employees could, in time, be transferred to municipalities, particularly those that currently lacked the skills to perform their constitutional mandate of reticulating electricity.
Preparations were also under way for what the Minister described as a "just transition pilot project", which would entail the retraining of workers for new activities as the power stations were decommissioned. “It’s only by doing it that we are going to learn what the just transition means in the context of the changes we need to make in our situation.”
FOLLOW-UP SPECIAL PAPER
Also under consideration was the drafting of a follow-up paper to the ‘Roadmap for Eskom in a Reformed Electricity Supply Industry’, in which government would outline the various technological innovations emerging across the global electricity sector and make proposals on how these could be employed in South Africa.
Besides renewable energy, the paper would assess prospects for battery energy storage, smart grids, artificial intelligence and clean coal.
The Minister revealed that government would, in the coming weeks, sign a deal redirecting the clean-energy component of the $3.75-billion World Bank loan to Eskom away from a concentrated solar project to a battery energy storage programme. The scheme is catered for in the Integrated Resource Plan 2019 and “could open up various opportunities for young black engineers”.
Gordhan also expressed enthusiasm for the prospect of introducing solar panels to the rooftops of low-income communities both as a way to bolster energy security and to create new opportunities for such households to earn an income from the electricity they injected into the grid.
“It’s into the future, but it’s something that could change the character of our communities quite seriously.”