The story of Eskom

Load-shedding, deepening privatization, and unaffordable electricity makes it difficult to imagine a pivot away from the neoliberal approach to South Africa’s climate crisis.

Image credit Gov. of South Africa via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 Deed.

As Eskom, Africa’s largest state-owned electricity company, celebrates its 100th year of operation the nation is gripped with the severe consequences of the declining performance of its coal generation fleet. South Africa’s ever-deepening energy crisis, with almost 6,000 hours of load shedding in 2023 so far, is perhaps the most emblematic example of the failure of the post-apartheid democratic era. Faeeza Ballim’s timely book Apartheid’s Leviathan: Electricity and the Power of Technological Ambivalence, seizes the moment of urgency in the public electricity debate to demand a re-examination of the historical roots of the crisis. 

The core of the nation’s coal fleet was forged in the crucible of the apartheid regime, facilitating the ruling National Party’s expansive industrial ambitions. The machinery of apartheid was paid for largely through the extraction of tremendous mineral wealth reserves, particularly dependent on the insatiable global demand for gold in the 20th century. Understanding the deep roots of South Africa’s coal power sector exposes more than a century of intense class struggle where, in response, competing sections of the national elite have jostled for control over strategic sectors of the economy.

Ballim’s treatise adds a new texture to influential works such as Ben Fine’s and Zavareh Rustomjee’s conceptualization of the Minerals Energy Complex and Renfrew Christie’s Electricity, Industry and Class in South Africa in two ways. The argument reflects on how changes in the political economy have shaped technology selection in the design of coal plants and discusses the impacts of these large-scale infrastructure projects in developing local steel production, entrenching the migrant labor system, and driving colonial expansion in the region.  

The book deepens the well-known framing of the historical arc of South African labor history by exploring how political economy dynamics shaping industrialization trajectories for the apartheid regime collided with the practical implication of technological choices in the energy sector. Coupling the development of technological innovation and expansion in the local coal value chain, over decades, included rising pressure to respond to increasingly strict environmental regulations.  

Apartheid’s Leviathan anchors its narrative arc on a close examination of the developments in the Waterberg region in the Mpumalanga province. It draws on a wealth of historical material, notably Eskom archives and interviews with engineers and other workers in the Waterberg involved in the apartheid-era Matimba plant, the steel state-owned enterprise ISCOR, and Medupi, the post-democracy coal-fired power station. 

The sharp focus on the Waterberg area and the exploration of plant-level insights allows for a nuanced interrogation of state planning. The book charts a course from the early process of “land dispossession by bureaucratization,” exploring how apartheid’s industrial ambitions entrenched the establishment of the migrant labor system leading to the development of informal settlements, which were later formalized into African townships. 

Environmental racism, and its impacts on public health, are introduced in the book through the narrative of the development of the town of Ellisras. By the 1960s, dispossessed and migrant African families lived dispersed throughout town. Apartheid state planners, together with white residents of the town, expressed growing concern about the poor sanitation in existing informal settlements in the area. The arrival of coal mining, under the ownership of ISCOR, led to the construction of the Grootegeluk coal mine and an accompanying African township, which functioned as a labor reserve. 

The township was established in the nearby town of Marken, located in the Lebowa bantustan, and the process was facilitated through forced removals empowered by the Group Areas Act. For the state planners, this initiative aided efforts to control the growing African population and manage the fears of the spread of infectious diseases, which would negatively impact the labor force requirement for the coming industrialization. 

In conjunction with the benefit of increased control over the labor force, Ballim identifies an additional financial incentive for bantustan consolidation. Rising inflation in the 1970s led to the reduction of spending on the bantustans, and so taxes on workers could be used to reduce pressure on the fiscus. Under apartheid, taxes could not be collected from Africans residing and working in Ellisras (within the apartheid boundaries of South Africa).    

The book offers reflections on the role and significance of independent trade unionism in leading industrial strike action with teeth, in the face of repressive state anti-protest laws under the apartheid regime. Ballim explores how militant worker leadership creatively exploited the contradictions within the apartheid legal bureaucracy to assert the rights of African workers.

An era of labor militancy charted through the establishment of the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), which later became the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA), was narrated through the reflections of Stephen Kekana, a worker organizer at Matimba Coal plant, on the struggle to achieve recognition and establish formal negotiation processes at Matimba between the 1980s and early 1990s: “They told us we were in an illegal strike… but we told them no, those laws don’t bind us because we did not have the right to work. That’s how we used to argue.”

The negotiations challenged a radical vision of affirmative action, rooted in class struggle, which aimed to democratize the governance and operations of the plant at the turn of democracy. The book highlights strategic demands from the unions calling for the prioritization of upskilling the existing workforce, and the leveraging of opportunities in early post-independence education reform such as “Recognition of Prior Learning” certificates to enable workers to further their education and take on new responsibilities. 

In the sections on the apartheid era, Ballim reflects on the growing divisions in the ruling Afrikaner nationalist camp, described as “verkramptes” and the “verligtes.” The verligte camp, ostensibly economic liberals, responded to the growing resistance to apartheid segregation laws and state repression by advocating for free market economic principles as a strategy to maintain white minority rule. The embrace of a “contested neoliberal” consensus was charted from the 1980s to the early 2000s as government austerity and increasingly strict environmental regulations posed new challenges as significant risks to the historic industrial partnerships established between the steel and coal sectors. 

As the book shifts toward the democratic era, there is very little engagement with the debates around the competing visions regarding the trajectory of post-democracy industrialization. Labor opposition to the ANC’s embrace of neoliberal economic policy, through the implementation of the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) plan in the late 1990s, is explored through labor’s opposition to privatization, but it is never quite located as part of a broader debate in which labor sought to contest the terms of transformation under the ANC’s evolving and contested paradigm of the National Democratic Revolution:

The NDR does not aim to reshape property relations in the most fundamental way of creating a classless society where there are no exploiters and exploited. It does not seek to eliminate capital and capitalism. However, by definition, the NDR must see to the de-racialization and democratization of ownership, accumulation, and allocation of capital, and it should do this in a manner that benefits the poor.

The strategic implications for the ruling alliance including the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the South African Communist Party, and their approach to reform and transform the mandate of South Africa’s apartheid-era, state-owned enterprises is not well discussed in the book. 

The tale of South Africa’s soured liberation is told through the disastrous development of the Medupi and Kusile coal plants. The construction of both plants was severely delayed, incurred significant cost overruns and tremendous debt burdens, and serious design flaws which contributed to widespread loadshedding and have all but helped sign the death warrant for Eskom in the face of aggressive electricity sector liberalization reforms. Ballim explores the emergent networks of patronage, and mismanagement linked to the ruling ANC that have ensnared the state utility under the so-called “state capture” era. 

The trouble of a timely book is that one is tempted to demand proposals and solutions to the current crisis. Apartheid’s Leviathan is not that book and that is perhaps one of its greatest strengths. Ballim’s careful exposition of archival documents and valuable insights from first-hand interviews add a human character offering a useful contribution demanding us to reflect on Eskom in its broader historical context.  

This said, for me as a reader, including interviews presents some uncomfortable questions about voice, How do we receive the narratives of apartheid engineers? In the book’s closing chapter, Ballim goes on to say:

The government also became systematically repressive as it realized the principles of racial segregation enshrined in apartheid. But rather than viewing the state corporations, their engineers and technology as enjoying a seamless accord with the apartheid government, their relationship is viewed in this book as both autonomous and immersive.

There are clear advantages for apartheid era civil servants to deliver accounts of these institutions as manned by dogged, technocratic leadership which were mainly focused on meeting their economic targets and fulfilling their scientific ambitions—as opposed to acknowledging and exploring their role as active participants in the construction of Africa’s most enduring, openly white supremacist industrial experiments. 

There are uncomfortable discontinuities in the telling of the transition from apartheid to democracy in the energy sector. In the book, verligte and verkrampte whites disappear, at least by name, at the turn of democracy, which feels jarring and incomplete. Where did they go? Who are they now? How are they organized? What are their ambitions? And finally, how are they responding to the collapse of the ANC’s national project?

Since the early 19th century, the history of electrification in South Africa has been one of strategic capture and control by sections of the national elite. First, the British ceded control in partnership with the Afrikaners, who then also entered a compact with a layer of the Black elite. The heterogeneous character of the contemporary national bourgeoisie has led to accumulation strategies that are fractured, overlapping, and in fierce competition in every major aspect of the energy sector—be it renewable energy, coal, and more recently the prospect of gas development. 

In the wake of rising levels of loadshedding, deepening privatization, and increasingly unaffordable electricity, it is difficult to imagine the conditions necessary to pivot away from the neoliberal approach to the climate crisis. One can only hope that through the legacy of the same struggles, driven by the black working class that opposed apartheid, the battle to recast a new development path for South Africa can be rediscovered, and with it the hope that the most important chapters in Eskom’s story are yet to be written.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.