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Eskom chief visits China as South Africa seeks to shore up ailing power monopoly

The head of South Africa’s troubled Eskom power monopoly has travelled to China, which has offered to provide support to Africa’s most industrialised economy as it battles intense rolling blackouts that are predicted to worsen as demand for electricity increases during the winter.

Calib Cassim, Eskom’s acting chief executive, is in China with Pravin Gordhan, the minister who oversees South African state companies, Eskom’s chair Mpho Makwana revealed to South African lawmakers on Wednesday.

Gordhan is there to resolve a dispute between a Chinese state company and South Africa’s state logistics group, Transnet, but “there’s Eskom matters as well,” Makwana said, without providing further detail. Eskom did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The trip follows a meeting last month between South Africa’s new electricity minister and China’s ambassador, which resulted in an offer for Beijing to help end the rolling blackouts. China’s embassy said after the meeting that Beijing was “ready to discuss with [the] South African side the support that could be provided, including electricity generation equipment, technical experts, technical consultation, personnel training, etc.”

Gordhan’s ministry said he would provide a “full account of the matters being addressed that are material to the economy and the country” on his return.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government has been looking for ways to arrest Eskom’s decline and has brought in a German engineer consortium to review its fleet of ageing power stations. The energy shortfall is expected to increase further over the coming weeks as South Africa’s cold season deepens.

Eskom has been forced to cut at least 6,000 megawatts of power per day indefinitely in order to prevent a total grid collapse, leaving South Africans without power for about 10 hours per day.

Plant breakdowns are overwhelming workhorse coal power stations which are also beset by corruption. The South African rand fell to a three-year low against the US dollar on Wednesday, reflecting anxieties about the power crisis and the health of its economy.

South African businesses have been loading up on expensive diesel for generators and have led an import boom in Chinese-made solar panels as they try to survive the power cuts in the short term. In the longer term, many companies are launching their own power projects as part of efforts to end reliance on Eskom for good.

Cassim has been the acting chief executive since Eskom’s board sacked André de Ruyter, who had been at the helm since 2019, over a television interview in February in which he castigated meddling in Eskom by the governing African National Congress. He was already serving out his term after quitting in December over a lack of political support.

De Ruyter added that there were political ties to the looting of coal power plants by criminal syndicates and said he had reported this to officials. 

He has since refused to publicly name any implicated politicians, and South African MPs have been weighing whether de Ruyter relied on suspect private intelligence for these claims. The ANC is meanwhile suing de Ruyter for defamation.

Makwana distanced himself from de Ruyter’s allegations on Wednesday. Malegapuru Makgoba, his predecessor as chair, told MPs that a private intelligence operation had been needed because police were failing to stop the rot.

“Eskom at the time was besieged by sabotage and corruption, and we were not getting any mileage from the law enforcement agencies,” Makgoba said. “They were almost lackadaisical about what needed to be done when Rome was burning . . . they let us down,” he added.

Eskom is yet to hire a permanent replacement for de Ruyter but says it has shortlisted candidates.

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