Eskom, which readily concedes it does not have the skills to maintain its plants, is on a drive to bring back former employees to mentor and train staff.
It is also, at last, bringing in the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to conduct maintenance on parts of its plants where its own engineers and artisans are having difficulty. This has previously been difficult due to red tape around public procurement.
Eskom's chief executive André de Ruyter and chief operations officer Jan Oberholzer are frank about Eskom's lack of capacity, which is a large part of the downward trend in the performance of its generating units. Unscheduled breakdowns, which cause load shedding, have been on an upward trend for a decade. In 2011, for instance, Eskom's energy availability factor – which is the proportion of its plant available to dispatch energy – was 84.5%. By 2020, this had fallen to 66.6%, and now sits at 56%.
While Eskom management has previously suggested bringing former employees back to the company, the suggestion led to pushback from current employees and unions.
But in an interview on Tuesday, De Ruyter said the proposal had received full support from the Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan.
Introducing a mentorship programme at Eskom is also on the list of interventions suggested by the ANC in a statement on Tuesday.
Said De Ruyter:
"We are now in the process of bringing in previous employees. It has been difficult due to legacy race issues, which are still sensitive and we cannot be oblivious to that. But from the perspective of the shareholder, there has been strong support for this on the basis that they come in to transfer skills."
Oberholzer said that two senior people had already been brought back, one to Koeberg and another to the generation division. He said a list of 45 people had been compiled and individuals would be approached to return in a mentoring role at senior and lower levels of the organisation.
An accelerated loss of skills at Eskom has been underway over the past two decades when old employees were encouraged to take voluntary severance packages to bring in new black graduate engineers.
But while the new entrants often had superior qualifications, such as engineering degrees, compared to the artisans they replaced, they lacked the experience of their predecessors, many of whom had worked their entire lives at Eskom. While transformation did occur, mentorship and training processes that had long been part of Eskom's work practice began to fall away.
"Eskom was a world-class utility and had world-class skills. At that time we had a pipeline of skills, we had succession planning, technical training and coaching and mentorship programmes. People went up the ladder and they were ready when they were appointed. A warm body in a chair does not mean the person has the skills. This is where Eskom went wrong."
The loss of learning and institutional knowledge must now be rebuilt, says De Ruyter. So must the culture of Eskom, where poor work practices have become the way things are learned and done.
"If you arrive at a power station where people don't care about housekeeping or don’t have good operating practices, you assume that this is the way that things are done. To unlearn bad habits and relearn new ones takes a massive effort," says De Ruyter.
At about the time that these changes began at Eskom, the artisan training system went through a dramatic collapse. The introduction of the Skills Development Act 1998, which introduced learnerships was understood by employers to mean the discontinuation of artisan training. While this was not the intention, government failed to communicate the change and employers stopped indenturing apprentices.
The state-owned companies especially Eskom, Transnet and Iscor - which had always trained excess artisans in the expectation that many would-be poached by the private sector also cut their intake of artisans dramatically. As the companies were corporatised, efficiency became much more important, so only enough artisans to meet immediate needs were indentured.
This led to a dire artisan shortage across the economy.
A second important measure to increase the quality of maintenance will be bringing in the original equipment manufacturers to work on areas of plant and machinery where Eskom is having difficulty. In his first presentation to the board after his appointment in January 2020, this was near the top of De Ruyter's action plan.
But procurement rules under the Public Finance Management Act made this very difficult as it required state entities to first apply for permission from the National Treasury should they want to extend a contract or procure directly from one supplier. This instruction was eventually withdrawn on 1 April and replaced with a simpler requirement that entities inform the Treasury and the Auditor General of single supplier contracts within 14 days.
De Ruyter says Eskom is now working on the contracts to present to OEMs in place, which is a lengthy process.
"Unfortunately, we can't do this overnight because we have to build in success criteria to the contract. We can't just hand over the work, it needs to be properly managed to things get done," he said.