Government and ANC concern about Eskom’s honesty with the public regarding the severity of the electricity crisis has led to a partial communications blackout.
Last month, at a lekgotla, the ANC national executive committee (NEC) and, later at another, the Cabinet decided to take over some of the utility’s communication responsibilities to try to control the information that is released publicly and, especially, what they believe should be kept secret.
A Cabinet source said the government was worried about how Eskom’s communications were affecting the government negatively.
“They are saying things and they are not realising how it is affecting us politically,” the source said.
He said the government was struggling to “align Eskom’s message to our political message”.
“We are concerned. We can’t have a state entity that is communicating a different message to what we are communicating,” he said.
The plug has not been pulled completely on Eskom’s communicators – “very technical” communication would still be left to the utility because it had the expertise to explain that.
A presidential infrastructure co-ordination commission report that was delivered to the NEC lekgotla raised concern that the “quality and reliability of information from Eskom is a major problem”. The report added that “an interministerial committee is addressing this with Eskom leadership”.
According to that report, Eskom’s “public communication has been poor”, but the document expressed hope that “this will now change with a Cabinet member assigned to manage and lead all communication on Medupi”.
The Cabinet source said Tuesday’s press statement, issued by the acting director general of the communications department, Donald Liphoko, about the fears of a total electricity blackout, was the beginning of a government takeover of Eskom’s communications.
In the statement, Liphoko dismissed as a hoax reports that Eskom’s main grid could crash and plunge South Africa into darkness for more than two weeks. He assured citizens that the country’s energy problems were receiving “priority at the highest level”.
‘Certainty in communication’
Another ANC source said it was not that Eskom was being stripped of its right to communicate with the public but that there was a need for the utility to “implement certain levels of predictability and certainty in their communication”.
But Liphoko denied that Eskom has been muzzled. “There is no decision that government is going to communicate on behalf of Eskom. Our position is to support the communication efforts of Eskom.”
But, he said, the government “reserves the right to speak on national matters. It’s not only to give direction to the entities, but also to the nation.”
He added: “We said, ‘Guys, whatever Eskom communicates
must be aligned with the work of departments’. There are policy decisions that need to be made by department of public enterprises, department of environmental affairs, etcetera. It needed someone to co-ordinate.”
Source: Mail & Guardian, by Qaanitah Hunter, Matuma Letsoalo and Mmanaledi Mataboge