Editor’s Comment by Patrick O’Leary
Hello all ya lovely people and welcome to the first FleetWatch newsletter for 2020. What an encouraging and uplifting kick-off month January was for all of us. Like heck it was! Not sure about you but I have never had so many candlelit dinners in my life. It was truly a month of romance and we have Eskom to thank for that. Well, uum, no; that’s not exactly true! Take this one.
There I was during yet another Eskom blackout, gazing deeply into my beloved’s eyes as we sat at the garden table under the stars enjoying our upmarket ‘two for the price of one’ take-away cheeseburgers and chips. As I stole the last chip from her plate, I leant across the table to give her a peck on the cheek. The mood was right but then….aaaaargh!! I had forgotten about the bloody candle. It was right under my chin and the flame immediately went into attack mode. I jumped up screeching in pain convinced I had incurred 3rd degree burns.
Hey, I’m not exaggerating. Do you know that the temperature at the tip of a candle flame reaches 1 400 degrees C. You’re talking about a flame that, if held long enough under the hulls of those three useless submarines South Africa got as part of the arms deal money grabbing frenzy, it would melt them into the sea. It was that flame that hit my neck. So, instead of appreciating Eskom as the bringer of an early Valentine’s Day, I ended up cursing them – just as the rest of South Africa was doing.
After snatching ice from my beloved’s wine glass and rubbing it on the burnt spot, I sat down to get the mood going again. As men always tend to do when they have a serious injury – or a minor bout of flu – I hid the discomfort and pain and focussed again on her. And then, just as the crooning started to work, Eskom switched the lights on. The candle glow paled into insignificance. Aaaargh!!!
But hold on. Hope was reignited as she looked at me with a gentle, come hitherto smile. “Let’s go inside,” she whispered. “Yes, Yes Yes,” I cheered inwardly. But, as she moved towards the verandah door, she turned and said, sweetly: “Oh and please can you get the vacuum cleaner from the cupboard. The carpets haven’t been vacuumed for two days and we need to do them now before the power goes off again. You do the carpets and I’ll sort out the washing machine OK.” Aaaargh!! Noooooo! It’s wasn’t OK! Eskom, I hate you with a passion.
Power Chaser at work
I put forward this light hearted entry into 2020 to hide my deep disappointment at what South Africa has become. Not sure how many of you have watched that TV documentary called ‘Storm Chasers’ where the guys chase after tornados, hurricanes and thunderstorms to capture valuable research data. Last week, I starred in a new series called ‘Power Chaser’ – chasing between my home office and my office-office to capture valuable power.
It started last weekend with regular scheduled Eskom load shedding – now more accurately described as ‘blackouts’. Not too bad. Then came Monday when, at 10am, all power in our area went off. We were informed it was related to a cable fault and would take some time to fix. That happens. It was a genuine fault; not the normal Zuma/Gupta-era induced disaster we have come to expect. My plan to work from my home office that day was scuppered so I packed my laptop and goodies and drove to my office-office in Randpark Ridge. Wasn’t there long and boom – load shedding kicked in; two hours earlier than stated on the Eskom schedule. It was to last four hours.
Having invested in a small generator some time ago, we were able to keep the basics – like plugs – going in the office so it was OK. However, after about an hour, the generator spluttered. No petrol. A visit to the local garage and 25 litres later, we were back on. Got home that night (Monday) at around 8.00pm and still no power.
The next day – Tuesday – was a no-go for the home office as by that time, the batteries on the backup invertor were kaput. Everything was drained of power – laptops, cell phones and of course, the freezer had started defrosting with the frozen goodies starting to feel like slap-pap. Laptop batteries, by the way, are absolutely useless in terms of their life. Power banks for cell phones are not much better. Elon Musk, where are you now that we need you? So it was off to the office-office where there was power. At 12.00pm, it went off – again earlier than the Eskom schedule – and it was back onto the generator. Another four hours of burning fuel.
With a fully charged cell phone and laptop, I later headed back home. The power was still off. I worked until my laptop battery died – which didn’t take long – and that was it. Nada! Nothing! And we still didn’t know when the repairs to the damaged cable would be completed. As it turned out, the power came back on at 10.00pm. On this point, I must throw a bouquet at the Tshwane technicians for working flat out over those two days to get the fault fixed. It was a massive job. Three cheers to them.
The next morning – Wednesday – saw me at my desk in my home office bashing away when boom, the power went off. So the cable fault had been fixed but we were back in the hands of the Zuma/Gupta induced Eskom blackouts. And so it went throughout the week.
Damaging effect on cell phone connectivity
During this time, I was also having real difficulty getting through to people on the cell phone; also, once through, having the call cut in the middle of the conversation. Many people were complaining of the same problem. I couldn’t understand why until I read a News 24 article by Duncan Alfreds that load shedding was having a damaging effect on mobile networks.
Alfreds quoted Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN SA Corporate Affairs executive, saying that the battery backup system on cell phone towers serve to keep mobile networks operational during blackouts. However, these batteries require time to recharge and frequent load shedding compromises this. “These batteries generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge,” she said.
Another problem, according to the article, lies in theft and vandalism. Thieves have targeted cell phone base stations to steal the batteries and diesel fuel used to power the mobile network infrastructure – especially during rolling blackouts. MTN in August last year permanently shut down 53 base stations because of theft and vandalism. The operator said that 89 base stations are on hold as they await replacement batteries and other maintenance fixes resulting from vandalism.
Alfreds also quoted Vodacom as stating that it is losing between R120-million to R130-million to vandalism and theft each year, with between 1 500 and 2 000 batteries stolen each month on average. So here is a double whammy affecting us all. Power shedding and criminality working against all in South Africa who are trying to work for South Africa.
So that was my incredibly frustrating week. My ‘small’ situation in my ‘small’ company resulted in a highly unproductive week with many wasted hours chasing power – and then running out of it once caught. And I haven’t even touched on the trials of the rest of the staff.
Many millions being lost
Now escalate that to every other individual, household, restaurant, farm, supermarket, shop, factory, hospital, mining company, manufacturing plant. Escalate it to every sector of society and the economy – primary, secondary and tertiary – and it soon becomes obvious that the impact of power blackouts has been horrendous affecting all sectors of the productive economy with many millions of Rand being lost due to Eskom’s inability to power up the nation.
Take Anglo American Platinum as an example. A recent article in Business Day stated that this mining company lost 38 000oz of platinum group metals (PGMs) to Eskom-related blackouts during 2019, costing the company more than R742-million in lost production that cannot be recovered.
Another article I read quoted Samancor Chrome as saying it could cut close 2 500 jobs in response to weak chrome prices and power supply problems. There we go again – power supply problems. It has hit everywhere – and I mean everywhere.
Now guess which sector services every one of the thousands of companies across the board. Yip, it’s the trucking industry. While politicians and the main stream media focus on high-profile sectors such as mining, what the country does not realise is that all these power outages impact negatively on the efficiency, productivity, profitability and sustainability of trucking companies. In trucking, time is money and when a truck stands idle, it adds to the cost.
It’s deje vu. Throw your mind back to 2008. Remember when Eskom switched the lights off for the first time. It was termed the ‘Black Week’. The whole country was in darkness and South Africa came to a grinding halt. I wrote at the time:
“Given the absence of an effective rail system, the trucking industry has truly become the wheels of the South Africa economy – and when the wheels of the economy begin to cost more to run due to cost pressures outside of the industry’s control, that is bad news for everyone. And that is exactly what is happening in the industry due to the power outages that first hit the country in January and look set to continue for the next four to five years.” Click here to take you back to those days.
Did I say “four to five years” at that time? We’re now 12 years down the line and we’re no better off. The same is happening today? How naïve I was. And the latest from the corridors of power – sorry, mistake; let’s just say from the corridors of Eskom as there is no power in those corridors – is that the current bout of blackouts will continue for the next 18 months. That’s what we have to look forward to?
Trucking industry faces huge challenges
The trucking industry is facing huge cost challenges this year and the Eskom debacle is going to add significantly to those challenges – and to the costs. These constant blackouts are having negative impacts – and will continue to do so – at the front and back door of every operation in this country and that is where trucks function – dropping off and collecting goods. It is going to burden the industry with huge additional costs at a time when every penny counts.
I am firmly convinced that the politicians in this country have absolutely no clue about the true impact these ‘blackouts’ have on our society and our economy and I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing unqualified ‘leaders’ in the political ranks giving opinions on issues they know absolutely nothing about – and this across the political sphere where they concentrate on power politics for their own personal or party interests instead of for the interests of the country as a whole.
This lack of qualified leadership has caused untold damage to the country – and especially to the ‘poor’ who every politician professes to care so much about. Like heck they do! The poor have not been involved in State Capture where an estimated R1-trillion has been siphoned off to the well-heeled and well connected. How can you influence kickbacks of millions of Rand when you live on the side of a hill in a tiny shack and are part of the huge pool of unemployed? All you’re looking for is a loaf of bread; not 100-million bucks kick-back on some conniving deal.
An example of the horror
To take our politicians a little closer to the coal-front, please watch the video featured here. And if you know a politician personally, send it to him or her. This is a company in Zimbabwe which manufactures plastic bags; but it could be duplicated in other forms to thousands of companies in South Africa.
At the time of my visit, Zimbabwe was having power blackouts every day. When driving through the ‘industrial’ area of Harare during the day, the sound of generators could be heard from all sides. But they only lasted as long as the fuel would allow; and would only be used if the company had been able to source fuel – at a huge price. Many companies therefore go for days without any production.
The purged wasted product referred to in the video is shown in the accompanying picture. It’s burnt and useless; total waste; money down the drain due to power outages. And of course, with all those interruptions, the delivery of raw product and collection of final product has to be postponed. So the truckers feel the negative impact.
This example illustrates the horror of trying to be productive in a climate where the consequences of political shenanigans impact so negatively on the productive capabilities of a nation. And Eskom is just one of the many ills South Africa is having to deal with.
The trucking industry exists to keep the wheels of the economy turning. State Capture and corruption (not only within SOEs and other Government and municipal circles but also emanating from the private sector) has, over many years, thrown huge spokes in South Africa’s economic wheels. The Eskom debacle is just one example of the dire consequences of this. There are many more and all impact adversely on the trucking industry. When is enough going to be enough?