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Mbeki says Eskom managers to blame for the first load shedding blackout. Here’s why

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Former president Thabo Mbeki has revealed how South Africa was plunged into its first load shedding crisis in the summer of 2007/08, blaming former Eskom power station managers for not replenishing coal supplies and cashing in through kickbacks as coal prices rocketed after the Eskom-engineered crisis.

Former president Thabo Mbeki said his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, and people aligned with him were responsible for Eskom’s perilous situation Picture: Timothy Bernard, Independent Newspapers

FORMER president Thabo Mbeki has revealed how South Africa was plunged into its first load shedding crisis in the summer of 2007/08, blaming former Eskom power station managers for not replenishing coal supplies and cashing in through kickbacks as coal prices rocketed after the Eskom-engineered crisis.

Mbeki apologised for plunging the country into darkness for the first time back in 2007/08.

The former president says he recently learnt, through a confidential special investigations unit report into Eskom, that he should never have publicly apologised for the power crisis as it was a man-made crisis by Eskom, internally. The special investigations unit report is under lock and key at the Union Buildings at the Office of the Presidency since about 2018.

Mbeki was speaking this week at an event hosted by the University of South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki African School of International Affairs, where the former president engaged with students.

Mbeki, who has been using his dialogues with students to give insights into the inner workings of government and state-owned entities, said the blackouts were devastating at the time and caused mines to shut down for a week.

In August last year, Mbeki told Unisa students that the systematic collapse of Eskom and South Africa’s democratic project was deliberate.

He also apologised during his last State of the Nation Address in 2008, before he was eventually recalled by the ANC in September 2008.

“It is however necessary that we take this opportunity to convey to the country the apologies of both the government and Eskom for the national emergency which has resulted in all of us having to contend with the consequences of load shedding,” he said in his Sona 2008.

Mbeki suffered a bruising defeat to Zuma at the ANC Elective Conference in Polokwane in December 2007.

Eskom coal managers to blame

Mbeki said the confidential report into Eskom showed that “in reality I was very wrong to apologise”.

He explained that the report showed that Eskom had internal controls and monitoring processes which would monitor the internal performance of power stations.

Mbeki said: “The regulation was that each power station must have a minimum of 22 days supply of coal immediately with it and not go below that.

“The internal monitoring system kept an eye on that, and already during December 2007 it was telling the power station managers you are running out of coal, replenish, and they didn’t.

He stated further: “What caused the power failure of January 2008 was that power stations ran out of coal.

“The power station coal managers at each station didn’t respond to this alert from within the organisation, saying replenish. They didn’t and we ran out of coal. You can’t produce electricity in a coal-fired power station without coal,” said Mbeki.

Mbeki said the report showed the load shedding crisis at the time was “easily avoidable”.

Since 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa has been warning of saboteurs committing acts of sabotage at Eskom.

“That special investigating unit report was never reported publicly, but I have some friends in high places, so I asked them and they gave me the report.

“I am trying to talk about 30 years of democracy, I am saying the first national power failure at Eskom had nothing to do with the narrative we are told, that it was a failure of government, it was a deliberate decision from within the organisation to produce that crisis,” said Mbeki.

Electricity price hikes

In his 2008 Sona, Mbeki warned South Africans that the load shedding situation “has precipitated the inevitable realisation that the era of very cheap and abundant electricity has come to an end”.

Economists Zaakirah Ismail and Christopher Wood, in a bulletin published by the SA Reserve Bank in September last year, said Eskom tariffs had increased by over 450% since the first load shedding in the summer of 2007/08.

Mbeki said immediately after the load shedding in 2007/08, Eskom declared an emergency and an immediate consequence was that no tenders were required, the utility could simply just buy coal wherever it was available.

“It immediately doubled the price of coal. That report will also say some of those station managers pocketed something from that,” said Mbeki.

New generation projects, delays

Mbeki said his predecessor, Zuma and people aligned with him were responsible for Eskom’s perilous situation, which included what he termed as deliberate delays to the construction and completion of new generation power stations such as Kusile, Medupi and Ingula.

“What happened is that they started to construct Medupi before 2007, but they had to stop the building, destroy what they had constructed, because the companies did not do their geotechnical work properly.

“When the construction of Medupi started, it sank. It had to be destroyed, resulting in a delay for 2 years.

“I don’t think that was an accident. It’s consistent with the people who intervened with regards to the SA Revenue Service.

“These power stations were due to be completed by 2014, in which case there would never have been this crisis today. Why?”

Mbeki said Eskom hired an Indian company to build Kusile Unit 1. The Indian company came with a team of hundreds of Indian technicians and engineers and the project was completed.

He said they expected to complete Units 2 to 6, but suddenly Eskom wanted them to partner with a BEE partner and “in the end, the matter couldn’t be resolved, so they left in 2016”.

“To this day we have not finished Kusile … It was quite clear if this matter of a BEE partner did not pop up, it would have been completed long ago.

“They were not interested in a BEE partner, it was to delay the construction of Kusile,” said Mbeki, who accused his predecessor of being a counter-revolutionary.

Nugent, Zondo reports on Zuma

Mbeki said the Nugent Commission into Sars was scathing of Zuma, saying he set out to destroy the organisation, while the Zondo Commission has made a finding on Sars, saying the former president Zuma played a leading role in destroying Sars.

“Yet again you have this strange phenomenon, who was responsible for this attempt to destroy Sars includes the president (Zuma).

“And it says so in black and white, ‘Jacob Zuma was part of the leadership in the process to destroy Sars’.

“That’s not my opinion, that’s what the Zondo Commission report says. That’s a bit of conundrum,” said Mbeki.

Mbeki is expected to campaign for the ANC ahead of the 2024 elections which are set to be held on May 29.

For the first time since 1994 many polls expect the ANC support to sink below 50%.

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