INTERVIEW with Christine Williams: Loadshedding is just a symptom of a much bigger problem that Eskom is now expected to resolve

INTERVIEW with Christine Williams: Loadshedding is just a symptom of a much bigger problem that Eskom is now expected to resolve
Christine Williams, Henley Faculty and Programme Director of the Eskom Top Talent Action Learning Programme / bne IntelliNews
By Elena Kachkova in Johannesburg November 14, 2023

When people in South Africa are asked about their daily life, “loadshedding” inevitably comes up. Sometimes spelt load-shedding or load shedding, it is the deliberate shutdown of electric power in a part or parts of a power-distribution system, generally to prevent the failure of the entire system when the demand strains the capacity of the system, according to

Yes, this South African daily reality has made its way into modern dictionaries. This year alone, the country’s state-owned power utility Eskom implemented 300 days of such rolling power outages to maintain a stable grid. According to local media outlet Independent Online, South Africans have only had 12 days this year without loadshedding (as of November 8).

Loadshedding is dominating the South African mindset. A recent survey found that the five biggest challenges South Africans say they face today are inflation (31%), crime and security (57%), corruption (61%), loadshedding (71%) and unemployment (74%). The last two issues are interconnected, as loadshedding reduces the productivity and efficiency of businesses and industries, which lowers their output and profitability. This in turn reduces the demand for labour and leads to job losses or lower wages.

Due to this, Eskom itself is another “trigger” word in the minds of most South Africans, who see it as struggling, dysfunctional, embattled, failing, criminal, inadequate and unsustainable. Eskom’s management and employees are often described as inept, unqualified, corrupt, useless, unable, and many similar negative adjectives. Yes, Eskom has some serious challenges to face, but do we know the full story? Maybe we are not just in the dark physically but also when it comes to understanding what the real issues are…

Newsbase therefore decided to speak to Christine Williams, founder and managing director of 2Connect, a network of leadership and strategy experts that advises, supports and mentors South African organisations, talent and leaders. Williams says she has been fortunate enough to work with a group of Eskom Top Talent on an Action Learning Programme organised through Henley Africa Business School in 2023.

Everything about Williams spells energy: her appearance, voice, dress, demeanour, drive, laugh and bright sparks in her eyes, especially when she talks about Eskom and its workforce.

This Top Talent Programme co-designed by Eskom Leadership Faculty Team and Henley Africa Business School was created to develop Eskom leaders and solve some of the toughest business problems the utility faces by drawing on the collective intelligence of a diverse and cross-functional group of individuals. The delegates attending the three “sets” of programmes were a combination of high-potential and high-performing general and senior managers and younger high-potential and high-performing middle managers.

“Over the past nine months, I have had the immense privilege of working with the Top 32 Talent from across Eskom,” said former Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter [they were identified before he left]. “I cannot tell you how impressive the calibre, commitment and work ethic of these individuals are! These are honest, hard-working individuals who despite the bad press, corruption/politics, pressure from their families and threats on their lives are doing all they can to provide power to South Africans, and in so doing, power the South African economy.” De Ruyter dedicated his book Truth to Power “to all the honest, hardworking men and women of Eskom, for doing an outstanding job under trying circumstances.”

So here are the attributes Williams uses when describing her trainees: best, outstanding, brilliant, amazing, committed and talented. Surely, with such people at the helm of Eskom, its future should be looking brighter… so where is it going wrong?

Q: Can you give us an overview of Eskom’s business challenges?

A: There are so many… Ageing power stations that have not been maintained, delays in construction of new power plant builds due to red tape, unreliable coal, illegal connections, non-payment from municipalities and obviously the much spoken about corruption and mismanagement. It is, however, interesting to note that many of these challenges are systemic of broader issues we are dealing with as a country and that the blame cannot solely be put on Eskom for the situation we find ourselves in.

The immediate challenges we have been focusing on with the Eskom Talent Programme which need to be addressed without delay can be divided into three categories.

First, there are technical challenges for Eskom to close the energy capacity gap for South Africa and [make the] transition to sustainable energy sources to supplement the base load, which will enable a cleaner energy mix in the short, medium and long term.

Secondly, there are people challenges. What needs to be addressed is how Eskom can shape, cultivate and unleash the cumulative power of its people and stop state capture and politics from preventing talented and committee employees to do what they know they must do.

Last but not least, there is Eskom’s reputation with the general public, which needs to be restored. Currently customers, stakeholders and business are in the dark regarding the real facts, as Eskom has not been communicating with these audiences. We need to look at how Eskom can connect with customers, to better manage the current frustrations/perceptions related to loadshedding and start re-establishing trust and confidence in Eskom as a key player within the broader energy ecosystem.

Q: Eskom is a huge organisation with over 40,000 employees. For most of this year it has been running without a permanent CEO after the abrupt departure of Andre De Ruyter in February in the wake of his explosive interview with eNCA, where he mentioned entrenched corruption at Eskom and political meddling with the utility’s business and management. What frustrates you most about the current situation at Eskom?

A: The issues we are currently dealing with did not start in the last year or even the last 10 years. It goes back as far as the 1970s, when we had our first South African power crises, and to when a decision was made to subsidise electricity in the 1980s, to mothball power stations in the 1990s and stop all “new builds” of the necessary power stations, not to mention the nine CEOs in 10 years between 2010 and 2020.

These factors combined with a lack of maintenance due to political agendas, a significant increase in rural access to electricity in the 2000s, and state capture after 2010 has resulted in a broken ecosystem and an energy crisis where loadshedding is just a symptom of a much bigger problem that Eskom is now expected to resolve. Not only is Eskom just one of the players is this ecosystem and is not empowered to make the necessary decisions needed to be made, but the current tariffs set by NERSA [National Energy Regulator of South Africa], which are the lowest domestic tariffs in the world, make it impossible for Eskom to viably run a business. Pressure needs to be put on the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, municipalities and politicians to stop getting in Eskom’s way and to enable Eskom with the right leadership, resources, authority and pricing to be able to do what the majority of Eskom employees want to do for the greater good of our country. 

Q: Thank you so much for your insights. To leave on a positive note, what encourages and inspires you most about Eskom’s future?

My hope and belief are vested in the amazing people of Eskom who, like the individuals I have been working with, are trying to make a difference and just do the right thing. This is demonstrated in the mantra taken on by the 32 leaders I have been working with: “If not me then who? If not now, then when?

AfrElec exclusive interview with Christine Williams – managing director of 2Connect and Henley Africa Adjunct Faculty and executive fellow of Henley Business School UK.