- Eskom: electricity and technopolitics in South Africa by Syvly Jaglin, Alain Dubresson
The timing of this publication could not have been better. I am in the midst of writing a Doctoral thesis in Economics on the ‘The Foundations of the Financialisation of the South African Economy: a firm level study of Eskom’. It must be said upfront that the book is not ‘new’ to the French speaking market since it was published in Paris in 2015 and has been recently translated into English by the authors. Readers keen to understand the evolution of Eskom and the resignation of Brian Molefe will appreciate the richness of the arguments and supporting evidence presented by Jaglin and Dubresson in a book about an institution closer to the state and the ANC, but somewhat distant from the engineers that built it. Jaglin and Dubresson’s thinking is based on research conducted in South Africa under the French academic programme, the ANR Termos (Energy Trajectories in Metropolitan Regions of South Africa) during which the Eskom question and the question of national energy governance features as a constant refrain.
The authors utilised evidence collected from field surveys conducted in Cape Town between 2010 and 2013 and draw also from information, data, technical reports and political controversies that can be accessed remotely from many websites focusing on South Africa’s national energy policy. Their sources also include Eskom, the South African government, the Departments of Energy and Public Enterprises, private companies, political parties, centres of academic expertise such as the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre, national and international energy [End Page 176] consultancy agencies, organisations working on renewable energy (such as Sustainable Energy Africa, Greenpeace, or the Electricity Governance Initiative), the business press, in particular, Engineering News, Business Day and Business Report, as well as personal websites and blogs run by experts with an long-standing involvement in discussion and debate around the evolution and future of the South African energy sector (eg Anton Eberhard 2007, and Chris Yelland 2016).
The Jaglin and Dubresson book proceeds by reminding readers that South Africa was once a leader with the cheapest steam generated electricity supplies in the world. Eskom Holding SOC Ltd is ranked eleventh in the world for installed capacity and the sixth largest African company across all sectors. It is vertically integrated, supplying about 95 per cent of the electricity consumed in South Africa and is wholly owned by the state.
There are various historiographies on Eskom (see Eberhard 2007, Steyn 2006, Conradie and Messerschmidt 2000, Clarke 1987, 1994, Christie 1984, 1978). For example Christie (1984) locates the foundation of the competitiveness of South Africa’s power generation on the material conditions, the social structure and its method of accumulation. Christie (1984) also argues that the shallow faultless thickness of seams, the compound, pass-laws and reserves that guaranteed cheap labour for the coalmines and electricity generation, and the state provision of cheap electricity for transport, mining and manufacturing embodied the competitiveness of power generating under apartheid. With all these strengths how did the mighty Eskom find itself under severe pressure in 2008 during peak periods reduced in managing uncertainty? Jaglin and Dubresson attempt to understand how and why one of the most iconic pillars of the South African state capitalism, winner in 2001 of the Global Power Company of the Year prize, is now in distress and close to foundering. What follows is a review of the translated book (2016) and a brief critique of the chapters.
In their introduction Jaglin and Dubresson locate an interpretation of Eskom in the following domains: the history and sociology of technology (Hughes 1998, 1993, Hecht 1998), institutions and their role in economic performance (North 1990, 1981), the interpenetration and entanglement between public and private interests, as well as the lack of differentiation between economic and political resources in the context of competing norms simply referred to as neopatrimonialism (Medard 1996). Jaglin and Dubresson engage their perspectives by considering the construction [End Page 177] and stabilisation of, and changes in, large sociotechnical systems based on...