Dark Continent

Last summer, Cape Town suffered severe water shortages. While the global media ran interference blaming global warming, an article in Nature magazine – hardly a hotbed of climate change denialism – explained why:

Since the 1980s, South Africa’s major conurbations have used systems models to guide their water management. These models, run by the national government, are considered world-class. They map links between river basins, reservoirs and transmission channels and use historical hydrological data to predict probable stream flows. Those are then matched to projections of demand to assess how much storage is needed. The models support real-time operations of the water network as well as planning for development. Crucially, they allow planners to assess risks of supply failures to different categories of users and evaluate the effectiveness of responses such as restrictions.

For two decades, policymakers heeded the models. They guided managers, for example, on when and where to tap sources and build reservoirs to enable the Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS) to meet rising demand from urban and industrial growth.

But dam building stalled in the 2000s, when local environmentalists campaigned to switch the focus to water conservation and management of demand. Such opposition delayed the completion of the Berg River Dam by six years. Eventually finished in 2009, the dam helped to keep the taps running in Cape Town this summer.

South Africa is repeating what’s happened across much of the English-speaking world and mainland Europe: contemporary politicians inherit a perfectly adequate system which has worked for decades and, through the application of ignorance, fanaticism, and arrogance in equal measures, proceed to f*ck it up completely. Unfortunately for South Africa, they seem to be taking things to the next level:

Blackouts in South Africa intensified to a maximum level on Saturday after the state power utility said it lost additional generation, including electricity imports from Mozambique.

The power cuts, first implemented over the weekend to replenish water and diesel designed for surplus generation, were raised to so-called Stage 4, removing 4,000 megawatts from the grid, Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. said in a statement on Saturday. It marked a third consecutive day of outages rotated throughout Africa’s most industrialized nation.

Eskom’s operational and financial woes stem from years of mismanagement and massive cost overruns on two new coal-fired power stations that should have been completed in 2015. The utility is seen as one of the biggest risks to the country’s economy.

It is tempting to blame this on an African government that’s reverting to type; they can certainly ask their brothers up in Nigeria for advice on living in a place with unreliable, intermittent electricity.

However, if this has been brought about by affirmative action policies, general incompetence of the political class, and religious-like commitment to environmental dogma foisted on them by supranational bodies and Geneva-based NGOs, how is this different to what’s going on in the developed world? The governments of France, Germany, the UK, and Australia have all decided to throw their electricity generating capacity into serious jeopardy by embracing windmills and closing nuclear plants, all for the purpose of impressing their peers at jamborees in resort towns. How long before supposedly developed countries are suffering brown-outs, or watching other parts of their infrastructure collapse? Italy can’t even keep its bridges from falling down, and I don’t think there’s a government anywhere which is capable of building anything without years of delays and quadrupling of costs. HS2, anyone? And it’s not as if South Africa is the only country in the world where people are appointed to senior positions based on skin-colour or other characteristics unrelated to experience, skills, and competence. Western organisations not only do this, they openly brag about it on their websites and give each other trophies for their efforts.

It used to be said that South Africa was a third-world country with first-world infrastructure. If they can’t even manage to keep the lights on, I think it’s fair to say that label is now obsolete. But what’s more concerning is the number of first-world countries which seem determined to have third-world infrastructure.

Liked it? Take a second to support Tim Newman on Patreon!
Share

20 thoughts on “Dark Continent

  1. It used to be said that South Africa was a third-world country with first-world infrastructure. If they can’t even manage to keep the lights on, I think it’s fair to say that label is now obsolete.

    The problem was the first-world infrastructure was designed and built to supply and meet the expectations of [10%] of the population – not just power but hospitals, roads, health care etc. The rest of the population had to put up with third-world infrastructure, if they were lucky.

    At the end of apartheid the wider population understandably wanted access to the first-world but, from my brief experience there, understood the need to be patient. As you say, they were let down by the likes of Zuma* and his cronies.

    The early cases of putting blacks in to key positions of companies and governments worked quite well because the ANC had been sending people abroad to study and even work in those fields. I worked for some pretty good guys who’d been in the MK and met many others. However there wasn’t enough to go round and a number of key political players had to be paid off.

    The problem with Eskom is that it was always under capitalised and because it couldn’t provide enough power the rest of the economy couldn’t develop fast enough to match black empowerment expectations. The rest is well known.

    *I swear I met him and we got pissed together. One lunchtime the leader of the team that was bidding for a mobile licence asked me to join him to meet one of their “secret” backers. We went to a small bar in the sports centre in Houghton and after a brief discussion where he got to vet me we went off drinking. I never saw him again and all I was told is that he was very senior in the ANC and going places.

  2. The problem was the first-world infrastructure was designed and built to supply and meet the expectations of [10%] of the population – not just power but hospitals, roads, health care etc. The rest of the population had to put up with third-world infrastructure, if they were lucky.

    Yes, good point.

  3. “I don’t think there’s a government anywhere which is capable of building anything without years of delays and quadrupling of costs.”

    I think Japan can still build things that are on time and less than 4x over budget. The overspend tends to top out at 2x, which is the sort of thing you’d think was terrible except in contrast with everyone else. Though I will be fascinated to see how the Olympic spending pans out – and whether there are clear accounts. If the accounts are opaque then you can be sure someone blew a pot of money on something they shouldn’t have.

    Mind you even Japan wants to turn off all its nukes – or at least many Japanese want this. As far as I can tell the government mostly wants the nukes (or at least some of them), but it also seems quite happy to have tons of windmills and solar panels and it is also willing to commit to building new coal powered power as well.

  4. I think Japan can still build things that are on time and less than 4x over budget.

    The Japanese are an alien race, put on Earth in a vain attempt to demonstrate to humans what can be achieved if you refrain from f*ckwittery. So they don’t count.

  5. Switzerland can build within the allotted budget, or so the legend goes.
    I live in northern Italy, 15 Km from the Swiss border, and that seems credible to me, comparing their timeliness in delivering the planned result – roads, tunnels, buildings, and also bureaucratic permits – with ours (consider that the area around Milano is the most efficient in Italy, and not so bad in the European context).

  6. My dad worked for Eskom for over 30 years and during that time he was involved in bringing on stream some world class power stations – Kriel, Duvha, Koeberg and the Highlands Hydroelectric project in Lesotho. The infrastructure is there, I suspect though that it is poorly maintained.

    Recently there have been reports of some very dodgy dealings regarding coal exports to China and not enough for local power stations, so you can see why the power supply is becoming more and more intermittent.

  7. Sue Murphy an ex boss of mine that I have mentioned on here before that is now stepping down from a very successful reign as the CEO for the West Australian Water Corporation (state water authority). For those that don’t know of her and her achievements in that role, she undoubtedly was a rainmaker for Perth and the state which in nothing more that one big god awful desert.

    So she was invited to Cape Town to work her magic and solve their water supply problem, if anyone could fix it, it was Sue. She did not see it as an infrastructure problem (nor do I) but an organisational structural problem. Sue has always been an ass kicker, she was, I can say that now that I am retiring, the only female that ever kicked mine.

    This is what she had to say about the situation in Cape Town.

    ……………………………………………………………………..

    ONE BUM TO KICK (OBK)

    With the success of the groundwater replenishment scheme behind her, it would be natural for the CEO to boast, or to point fingers at other less successful regions for not being as forward thinking as her utility. That’s not Murphy’s style. Even discussing the looming threat of ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town – a discussion which has perplexed and even provoked heated responses from the most level-headed CEOs – Murphy answers with true diplomacy.

    “I’m not critical of Cape Town,” she says. “I think the failure is not a failure of planning per se, but a complex water utility and planning arrangement that makes no one actually accountable. There’s something like 24 separate water companies in Cape Town – that makes it very difficult to plan. If you are going to plan you need to have some element of scale and the ability to actually deliver and influence the whole thing.”

    For Water Corporation, covering the whole state of Western Australia, Murphy describes it as the “one bum to kick model”, known as OBK. “As we’re one water utility, comprising water and wastewater, we have an integration for the water cycle in our remit across the state, so it’s our job to plan and to make sure plans are in place.”

    Combining water and wastewater responsibilities under one roof are key, she says.

    “I think often the failure is not a failure of planning but a failure of government structures,” she adds.

    ….The CEO adds: “Couldn’t we all better use the data we have, yes? Do we need more data and in a more integrated way of using it? Yes. Is putting more sensors on and getting more data going to solve more problems? No. I think a lot of the issues we see, and Cape Town is one of them, is how we’ve structured ourselves causes us often as many problems as the problem.”

    https://www.waterworld.com/articles/wwi/print/volume-33/issue-3/headline/leader-focus/sue-murphy-meet-australia-s-water-wonder-woman.html

  8. Also of relevance to Cape Town and the current state of its public infrastructure predicament, this time with it’s much needed passenger rail transport system, here is a post that I made over at Bill the Razors gaff.

    ……………………………………………..

    I followed with interest the headlines surrounding the recent spate of arson attacks on the Cape Town rail system. Something like 50% of its rolling stock have been torched to destruction in a relatively short space of time.

    A spokesman for the local Cape Town Taxi Trust said that he was absolutely saddened at such wanton and pointless destruction of this vital and crucial public transport service. Furthermore, he reassured the stranded Capetonians that as a gesture of good will and selfless service that they were going to increase the number of taxis (small white busted ass minivans loaded to the gunnels) on the streets and throughout the province in order that the stranded rail commuters would suffer as little disruption as possible by now being bale to utilize this expanded taxi service.

    MetroRail Cape Town has lost half its fleet to arson attacks and vandalism
    ……………………………………

    https://www.williamofockham.com/2019/02/15/write-down-nbn/#comments

  9. Some observations: the new regime inherited many state owned infrastructure companies from the old regime. The Afrikaner Nationalists were not capitalists but preferred to support their base through protected employment controlled by the state. These entities like the monopoly Electricity Supply Commission (Eskom) were run neither efficiently nor imaginatively but for the most part honestly. They provided the incoming black government with a lot of parastatals to play with and were congruent with thei ANC’s socialist ideology.
    Pre94 there were two economies running side by side, a modern first world urban economy, largely but not exclusively white, and a mainly rural third world economy. At transition bringing infrastructure of clean water and electricity to those without, largely successful With an initial small amount per month uncharged. Eskom supplies either directly or vwholesale via municipalities who sell it on. Many “new” administrators failed to pass on the monies received or clampdown on illegal harvesting, partly as a source of popularity as well as “redistribution. From the earliest days of Mandela’s government this was tolerated.
    In the 90s there were projections that SA needed more generation capacity so instead the government threw money at a highly corrupt arms procurement programme that “incidentally “ funneled money from successful bidders ( French and maybe others) to the ruling party, in time for the second “free” election.
    For symmetry the ANC mothballed the highly effective helicopter squadron immediately after it rescued hundreds of Mozambicans trapped by floods from a cyclone and the occupants of a cruise ship which went down off the coast.
    Forward to about 2005 when the system started creaking and the first loadshedding began. Two new large modern power plants close to the abundant high grade coal in the east of the country were greenlighted and maintenance of the old plants at last begun. Then Zuma happened and the state owned electricity industry became a feeding frenzy for every connected rogue and his hangerson. The new plants went almost an order of magnitude over budget, the coal supply contracts were inflated and corrupted and the were several years delay, during which SA experienced another period of loadshedding ie scheduled blackouts
    Now that they are online SAfricans are told they were poorly designed and extremely poorly built, the skills base that knew how to keep a grid running emigrated long ago to where their skills were valued and the institutional knowledge required to get it being a producer of abundant cheap energy is gone.
    The Cahora Bassa dam was a project with Portugal to produce electricity for the whole of Southern Africa, not simply as a supplement to RSA. Its contribution was delayed by by the guerilla wars of the 80s. Now the supply has been downed by cCyclone Ida which once again has people stranded in trees from which there is now no SA Air Force helicopter squadron to rescue them.
    That life continues fairly normally (if you can afford a diesel generator as back up) is a measure of Adam Smith’s dictum that there is a lot of ruin in a nation. I just don’t know when SA will exhaust those reserves.
    This will probably happen when the largely white green lobby get their way by erecting mass windfarms which will behave like those of South Australia and destabilise an already dodgy grid, who have also prevented the fracking for gas in the empty semi desert of the Karoo, which if they built a plant there would reduce the long supply lines to service both the Eastern and Western Cape and be a lot cleaner than coal.

  10. I worked in South Africa on a couple of projects – all post apartheid.

    There was quota system in place and so every company had a number of blacks employed whether they contributed or not. By and large black South Africans suffered from the school boycott and weren’t much cop. There were exceptions. However there were a significant number of other black Africans including a large contingent from Zimbabwe who were very talented and were reliable. In comparison a lot of the locals would show up but do little of value. There was a lot of resentment against “these Zimbabweans stealing South African jobs” while I was there.

    I don’t buy the idea that ANC schooled its members abroad and so they can run large companies. (1) this benefit would have been available to an elite subset only and (2) They would have been schooled in politics, not in business.

    One thing I’ve learnt from working abroad in Africa and the middle east is that large companies are frequently owned (or run) by insiders of the country’s rulers. We can see the same process in Zimbabwe where ZANU heads get given the spoils of appropriation. That they don’t have the skill to exploit them is illustrative of my point. South Africa in the period immediately after apartheid seemed to avoid this direction, but it’s certainly in play now. I suspect someone in the ANC was given a fiefdom which was used to exploit for his own enrichment. Well Duh!

    I suspect that will be the chief cause of this latest outtage

  11. There was quota system in place and so every company had a number of blacks employed whether they contributed or not.

    Replace “blacks” with “minority (ethnic, gender, disabled)” and you have pretty much every corporation you can name.

  12. Seems o me like they are now up on par with a first world country and making all the same mistakes we made.

    In the past in Africa it was third world corruption, that has now been replaced by first world incompetence. Whoo Hoo for them. Unfortunately for them they don’t have the existing infrastructure being eroded by that incompetence just no way to advance their third world infrastructure due to incompetence.

    On the plus side I understand that they have much better and more direct ways of recalling their politicians than we have.

  13. I don’t buy the idea that ANC schooled its members abroad and so they can run large companies. (1) this benefit would have been available to an elite subset only and (2) They would have been schooled in politics, not in business.

    Yes it was mostly government and as I said they didn’t have enough to go round anyway. They also brought back quite a few ex-pats who had business experience but hadn’t been ANC members. They weren’t really like by the black community from what I saw.

    There no doubt the HDI and HDC schemes were a drag on companies because it was used to place political lackies and not people with at least some experience and aptitude.

    I recommend The Life and Times of Thabo Mbeki and Comrades in Business. Which, as well as working for a load of MK guys is where I got most of my background on the subject.

    I also recommend The Last Trek: A New Beginning, FW DeKlerk’s autobiography, far more interesting and enlightening about the end of apartheid than Long Bore to Freedom.

  14. Lord T: I stand in admiration of the Saudis shakedown of a troublesome faction by imprisoning them in a hotel, nthen releasing them after enhanced interrogation to locate all assets and payment of the hospitality bill. Incarcerating all the thieves is expensive but a return of stolen assets from wherever they have been hidden would be a wonderful spirit raiser. Unfortunately together with the “best ever” new constitution SA received a glittering bill of rights and judicial process fully exploited by the thieves(Zuma has almost 1000 alleged crimes and a large legal entourage that have been busy for over a decade).

  15. Tim, I think that while Australia, (and probably much of the West) for example, is now incapable of building anything large in anything like geological time, other nations can do so.

    As an example, China built the Shanghai – Beijing high speed rail, about 1, 500 kilometers, in just over two years.

    They do that sort of thing all the time.

  16. “JB of Sydney/Shanghai”

    We know the Chinese build some quite impressive infrastructure in fairly quick time, one of the benefits of a command and control economy, but what we would like to know is:

    1. Given te corruption in China how long will it last?
    2. How much did it really cost?

  17. Bloke in North Dorset.
    Short answer, “I don;t know.”

    Just as an aside, many Chinese products sold in the West are not of the highest quality. Not many ask why? I think in many cases this is a result of the Western importer going for the lowest possible price, the result of course is you get what you pay for.

    Anther reason, if perhaps a lack of appreciation of the importance of Quality control, among millions of workers entering a new field of activity…from farm to factory. (A few articles have been been written on this, but the whole area of China is so vast, the coverage is slim.)

    However, from a different angle, I suggest a look at the interviews of Tim Cook, the head of Apple, on why they manufacture in China. Maybe a wake up for those who think China is still a bicycle economy.

    BTW, recently finished setting up its own GPS satellite system, landed on the moon, and has built more VFT networks than the rest of the World put together.

  18. However, from a different angle, I suggest a look at the interviews of Tim Cook, the head of Apple, on why they manufacture in China. Maybe a wake up for those who think China is still a bicycle economy.

    I’m of the opinion the ability of a people to adhere to quality standards is strongly linked to the culture. Whereas there is no doubt the Chinese have improved, I believe the jury is still out on whether they can manufacture and build to western standards. Certainly we’ll need to wait 25 years in terms of its infrastructure to see how well it was designed, constructed, and maintained, but we might not have to wait long to find out the rest. Put it this way, I’ll believe the Chinese have mastered global quality standards when they can credibly sell airplanes to developed-world airlines and offshore workers are happy to fly out on Chinese helicopters. And if they’re not at this stage in 10 years, I think we’re entitled to ask what’s keeping ’em.

Comments are closed.