The economic death-cult of social compacting means many in the political economy mistake leadership and the self-confidence of knowing what needs to be done based on long experience for arrogance. It champions mediocrity on “skills” for the right tick boxes elsewhere in terms of the developmental state and cadre deployment.
Parts of the governing party are at risk of doing the same with SOEs. Listening to, rather than shutting down, contestation and vested interest groups who clearly don’t have the best interests of the employment and development at heart has delayed processes. This says a lot about a crisis of leadership in SA in general. That anyone can be put in any role because ultimately the compacting system will magically conjure up the right answers for such a deployed person to implement. This is crazy.
But in the end pragmatism, from the department of public enterprises especially, seems to be winning the day. The crisis Eskom is in means options are constrained to the point where only one choice is left standing. This is also increasingly happening (albeit with more of a lag) at SAA.
The presidency seems to still be stuck. Others, however, have come to their senses and pragmatism has won out — Tito Mboweni and Pravin Gordhan and their respective teams in particular (though, given nuance, sometimes pragmatism comes in different flavours that can conflict, but that is another story for another day).
What is about to happen at Eskom and SAA will be a fascinating experiment of which side of this debate can work out.
With Eskom, we certainly never want to hear “I never knew how bad it was”, which has been uttered by so many other SOE leaders.
But decisiveness and knowledge creates the potential for conflict, especially after double- and triple-checking all stakeholders have been consulted and vs the innumerable commissions and working groups. The roles of shareholder vs board vs c-suite at SOEs have never really been sorted out in the past because each was as weak as the other. It will now have to be sorted out for Eskom and other SOEs if Eskom is to be allowed to function and rescue itself.
In some sense SAA’s impending demise comes at just the right time for the wider SOE complex. It will highlight the hard decisions required, the need (and ability) to avoid pain by acting early.
Eskom needs to be stabilised (both operationally and financially) while also undergoing radical shifts in its role as part of a just energy transition. The government is so bad at these things precisely because these processes require the choosing of winners and losers, and as such the death-cult of social compacting can achieve little.
A theoretical path out has now been laid for Eskom by the department of public enterprises but can easily be derailed with too many cooks and too much sticky status quo developmental monopoly mindset from some parts of government.
SAA equally is more at risk of a sudden stop in sentiment forcing a shift towards sustainable solutions and where winners and losers will have to (legally under business rescue) be picked.