Container ships in Cape Town harbour.
The turn-around of container ships in the port of Cape Town is extremely slow by international standards.

By Blake Wilkins

A formula is emerging as the government moves to disassemble monolithic State organisations into more manageable entities. But ‘hard’ men and women answering to independent boards should be embedded into those entities with a mandate to slough off the tentacles of misguided thinking.

I held my breath when President Cyril Ramaphosa shared the news a few days ago that a shake-up was on the cards for our under-performing ports.

‘Here’s an ideal opportunity,’ I thought ‘to carve out a spot for another person with nerves of steel to shake lose the moribund and take us into positive territory.’

Nope. There will be no long-winded search for a high performer to head up the new National Ports Authority. The new entity will have its own board independent of Transnet, hopefully with some board members drawn from the private sector.

After all, the government is expecting the private sector to pump funds into ports infrastructure to add to the R100 million drawn from the fiscus over the next five years for infrastructural and other improvements.

Transnet has its own Maggie Thatcher in CEO Portia Derby. She was landed with the unenviable task last January of turning around a decimated and barely functional port, rail and pipeline SOE, one of six SOEs that fall under the Department of Public Enterprises.

Perhaps she will also unlock the destructive mindset in Transnet that has for years blocked the entry of private enterprise into activities that would have eased the logjam in South African ports (see Daily Maverick168  article of 27 June).

Transnet has the dubious distinction, along with Eskom, of having been the feeding ground for a bunch of rascals who ignored the Godfather copyright in their plundering frenzy. The slew of dodgy deals and underhand dealing was so rife that even the samoosas in the head office canteens ended up in Dubai.

Perhaps Ms Derby has identified a ‘hot shot’ in her Ports team willing to take up the cudgels with zeal and enthusiasm. If not, then the time may be opportune for a new face to lead that team.

The new head honcho must be willing to ignore the cries of wounded cadres, none of whom will lose their jobs we’re told. Perhaps a new face would add impetus to uplift the performance of South African ports from the dismal to the exceptional. Poor performance in our ports has been blamed on outdated infrastructure. That’s probably true. I’d qualify that by suggesting that poor maintenance might also have crept in.

But more importantly, the quality of management and the attitude of workers on the ground must be addressed. A defeatist attitude may have crept in, as is the case with Eskom. I suspect, once again mirroring the Eskom model, that the issue of wildly inflated overheads must be sorted out urgently.  Fees paid to contractors must be carefully scrutinised with fair profit being the yardstick.

Muscular CEOs

Eskom André de Ruyter ‘experiment’ that came about just as South Africa was about to sink into perennial darkness has turned into a success, albeit with improvements that appear over the horizon in miniature steps amid ongoing blackouts.

We’d seen similar success at the South African Post Office with Mark Barnes at the helm until the wheels wobbled madly, seemingly over the issue of a Postbank. The CEO exited stage left and within an alarmingly short time, the Post Office once again sank into the abyss.

In both cases, people with nerves of steel had been appointed to head up lame duck, government-owned entities. And they began to turn those entities into viable organisations able to meet at least part of their mandates. De Ruyter is still at Eskom and hopefully will ride out the barbs that continue to litter his way forward. The many trolls in that organisation are quick to criticise and slow to acknowledge their roles in the erosion of the behemoth.

Granted, the precedent set by the government in the appointments of Barnes and de Ruyter was for positions at the highest level in those organisations. The appointment of de Ruyter, in particular, was confirmed after a prolonged period of teeth gnashing.

The word is that the job was offered to some extremely capable people. They were not interested. Not surprisingly, de Ruyter’s appointment drew the expected criticism from those quarters where the expulsion of hot air is the norm.

The process of disassembling the monolithic Eskom into three separate entities comprising generation, transmission and distribution is well underway, we’re told. The separate entities will fall under the umbrella of Eskom Holdings. A similar model is being followed at Transnet with ports and, in due course, railways. In both cases, the State will retain overall ownership while bringing the private sector into the mix at board and operational levels.

It’s too early to speculate about the possible appointment of hard-minded CEOs to head up the three independent Eskom entities. There is a pressing need to have people with muscle and integrity to manage the first of the three entities – the transmission grid.

That appointment is even more crucial because of the announcement in the last few days that the threshold for independent power generator operations has been increased to 100MW. Owners of embedded generator projects will be allowed to wheel electricity through the national transmission grid, subject to wheeling charges and connection agreements with Eskom and relevant municipalities.

Just imagine the chaos if the Eskom Transmission SOE grinds to a halt through mismanagement and poor maintenance of a complex nationwide network.

In a little more than two years there should be a diminution in the frequency and duration of the power cuts that have devastated the economy, heaping gloom onto the doom of Covid surfing. But that’s only because mines, which are among the heaviest consumers of electrical power in South Africa, will proceed at warp speed to install and commission their own power generation plants.

Rail woes

In the same vein, the mooted appointment of a private sector organisation to take over the management of crucial railway lines might call for the appointment of a muscular CEO not inclined to kowtow to party political whines and whinges. The embedding of a private sector operator into the Transnet rail system has been on the cards for some time.

The final flag that has emerged above the trenches of a besieged Transnet signalled the need for the recreation of a specialist railway police force. The acceptance of the principle of such a dedicated police force is not up for debate as far as I’m concerned. But where would Transnet find the men and women to populate that team?

The South African Police Service has developed a reputation of farcical proportions that reflect the ‘see no evil’ mantra. While there is undoubtedly a core of excellent men and women in the SAPS, identifying and recruiting them would leave the remnants of the SAPS resembling a cardboard cut-out of a force able to be tumbled over by the slightest ill wind.

Things are moving in the intricate jumble gym of government institutions and power gymnastics. Whether the moves will bring positive benefits to our beleaguered economy remains to be seen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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