I don’t think South Africans are keener on theft than any other nation. Anybody who has seen the film Goodfellas may remember the line (from Henry Hill): “By the time I grew up, there was $30-billion a year in cargo moving through Idlewild Airport and, believe me, we tried to steal every bit of it. It was an even bigger moneymaker than numbers and Jimmy was in charge of it all. Whenever we needed money, we’d rob the airport. And, to us, it was better than Citibank.”
All very well. The characters in Goodfellas are crooks; that’s the business they are in. But now, in Southern Africa, we have an incredible new circumstance. There are senior Eskom employees who, at the behest of their shady bosses, are busy sabotaging Eskom equipment, machinery, stealing stuff and generally trying to make sure that Eskom doesn’t run very well. One would think that there is nobody in South Africa who wants this but, oh, you are so wrong. It all began when it was discovered by various politicians that Eskom represented a form of a gold mine, where the richness of the reef could be set up by anybody in authority. All that had to happen was that a manager of sufficient seniority had to approve a contract for the provision of anything – security, information technology services, software – and the contract (highly inflated) would be granted. Money was skimmed and all were happy. If, by any chance, the story leaked out, the money illegally gained would be used for an endless series of appeals, court cases, bribes . . . until the whole thing fell out of sight. Now, until this point of Eskom history, this was no different to any other bunch of crooks. Then the thieves discovered coal. They found that coal theft is a great business. Get the truck to bypass the weighbridge and steal the contents. Or use fake trucks. The thieves dress up their trucks to look like those of legitimate operators. So, when a clone arrives to collect a load of coal, it looks like the real deal, and no-one pays much attention. The truck is loaded up with coal, passes through the weighbridge in the normal way, and is then stolen.
However, the Empire Has Stuck Back. Arrests have been made in the coal theft business. But this has led to where we are right now – an increase in sabotage and theft of Eskom facilities with the intention of getting the authorities to take their eye off the coal and other crimes. Some Eskom senior power station managers who have actively arranged for power station outages have been caught and charged. A few Eskom supply chain managers, one very senior, have been suspended. There is no doubt about two things: Eskom management is winning the load-shedding war and the bad guys have not given up. Just recently, Eskom placed seven managers on precautionary suspension over possible continued gross negligence in the performance of their duties at the Tutuka power station. There’s a lot at stake. CEO Andre de Ruyer is doing a great job. However, he must be high on somebody’s hit list. On the bad guys’ side, there seem to be a lot of suspensions but very few arrests and sentences. As I said, the thieves, coal crooks and all have not given up. They want to push the sabotage and theft agenda in the hope of the return of the good old days when even the Eskom CEO was as cooked as a corkscrew. I believe the Eskom culture is changing, with the inherent decency and honesty of the average Eskom employee on the rise. But, right now, this is not enough to stop the sabotage, crime and theft. South Africa faces a very real danger here. If the Eskom power supply goes back to regular load-shedding, the economy is in a very bad way. This must not be allowed to happen. Fingers crossed.