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I have never liked the term SONA. It hides from the core purpose of holding the event, which should be to thoroughly analyse where we are as a country so that we can develop improvement strategies. By honestly and openly appraising the state of the nation, we ought to be able to identify the problems holding us back and how best to resolve them.

Maybe my views are too system’s bound, though, influenced by technical procedures such as maintenance and risk assessments to optimise long-term equipment performance.

We have come to expect the annual SONA to be laden with political rah-rah, promises and assurances of a better future – and in recent times, EFF disruptions linked to ‘paying back the money’.

Peter pic latestPresident Cyril Ramaphosa started off his 2019 address by disarming his entire audience with a joke about his reluctance to sing, while expertly reminding us of his ‘Thuma Mina’ catch phrase of 2018 and neatly implying that Mmusi Maimane might be an ally in singing for Julias Malema should he ever have to present the State of the Nation Address himself.

Onto the evaluation of our nation: The need for jobs was, as always, highlighted, with the Presidential Jobs Summit mooted in response to double the number of jobs created every year. Ramaphosa also cited his Youth Employment Service, which sets out to put unemployed youth into paid internships.

With respect to corruption, he promised to cure our country of its “corrosive effects”; and to implement moves to stabilise and restore the credibility of state institutions such as the NPA, SARS and SAPS.

He listed five tasks that will underpin everything Government does this year: accelerating inclusive economic growth and creating jobs; improving the education system and developing the skills we need now and into the future; improving the conditions of life for all South Africans, especially the poor; stepping up the fight against corruption and state capture; and strengthening the capacity of the state to address the needs of the people.

On land, he aims to expand agricultural output and promote inclusion, using “massive areas of unproductive land that exist in South Africa”, including land parcels owned by the state.

The big anticipated announcement was about the unbundling of Eskom into three separate entities – generation, transmission and distribution – which came with a warning, that bold decisions and decisive action may have painful consequences but would be “even more devastating if we delay”.

President Ramaphosa acknowledged that corruption and mismanagement have severely damaged many state-owned companies and assured that evidence of criminal activity must be evaluated. “Where there is a basis to prosecute, prosecutions must follow swiftly, and stolen public funds must be recovered urgently,” he said.

Overall, who can deny that our president is aware of the problems we face and that he is attempting, albeit at a snails’ pace, to address them. He is an astute politician and much easier to listen to – and like – than his predecessor.

In spite of renewed determination to deal with corruption and to address the challenges at Eskom, the ANC’s disgraced and disbanded provincial executive committee (PEC), which includes its allegedly corrupt leader, Supra Mahumapelo, are back in charge in the North West Province; and Eskom has begun implementing Stage 2, Stage 3 and Stage 4 load shedding after up to seven of its generators tripped.

In addition, the ‘good news’ that unemployment dropped from 27.5% in Q3 last year to 27.1% in Q4 was reported. We now have 6.1-million unemployed people between 15 and 64 years of age and only 16.5-million employed people.

Events and statistics such as these bring into much sharper focus the real state of our nation. We are in a crisis of our own making and it is very difficult to see how political will alone can drag us out of it.

Much has been made of Eskom’s financial failings, which have directly led to maintenance ‘neglect’. More concerning, however, is the recent emergence of poor reliability being experienced at the Medupi and Kusile plants, which were expected to relieve the burden on the older power stations. Suggestions are that this is design-related, which means it will affect every unit. According to Titus Mathe, the repair costs may amount to a further R8‑billion and “might take years to fix”.

Rating agency Moody’s is sceptical about the effect of unbundling Eskom as a means to resolve its financial and technical woes, while Cosatu sees it as a back door to privatisation.

What is clear is that, when it comes to strategic, expensive and highly technical SOEs such as Eskom, political interference along with corruption leads to disaster. On the other hand, competence – managerial, financial and, most importantly, technical – are absolutely vital.

And the private sector is where many of these competences now lie.

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Peter Middleton
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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.