Confusion reigns over who will ensure that state debts to Eskom are paid

Eskom is owed billions by government departments and municipalities.
Eskom is owed billions by government departments and municipalities.
Image: John Liebenberg

Disagreement over who in the government is responsible for making sure that state entities pay their debt to Eskom led to the breakdown of a parliamentary meeting on Wednesday which would have mapped a way forward on the matter.

The standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) was hoping that deputy president David Mabuza, who chairs the interministerial committee (IMC) on service delivery, or someone delegated by him, would appear before its MPs to talk about how the government will ensure those who owe Eskom will settle their debt.

Instead, cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Eskom executives and board members showed up.

Mabuza, through his parliamentary councillor, sent a letter to Scopa chairperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa saying the issue of Eskom debt was not in the deputy president's purview and that even the terms of reference for the committee said nothing about Eskom debt.

The fifth administration established a task team to address the issue of defaulting municipalities that owed money to Eskom. MPs heard in December last year that when the task team was established in February 2017, the debt owed to Eskom was R9.8bn. Instead of going down, the debt jumped up to R19.9bn by October 2019, MPs heard at the time.

The task team, which was led by Cogta ministers, was not re-established in the current sixth admnistration.

MPs lamented the confusion over who should be leading the push to get payments to the power utility, noting that Dlamini-Zuma didn’t have a role to play or at least wasn't the one leading the process.

ANC MP Bheki Hadebe said this posed a challenge on coordination. "It would be ideal to have a coordinated structure where all these bodies will account. We are now back to square one," he said.

Another ANC MP, Sisi Tolashe, said while they had previously complained about officials and ministers who do not attend parliamentary meetings, "the people are here now, now the highest office has disappointed us. Let's agree, let's accept that. However, let's find a way to hear from the office [of the deputy president]".

Dlamini-Zuma said it was true that her department could not do much as it has no leverage over indebted municipalities. "There have been some discussions I won't get into for now, but we will go and put our heads together with Treasury on these issues," she added.

Hlengwa registered MPs' unhappiness over the failure of the executive to come up with a coordinated approach to dealing with the Eskom debt - "particularly since Eskom is the major contributor to the current technical recession".

The committee decided that it will drive the coordination to ensure Eskom debts are settled. It will also invite various stakeholders - the finance minister, the minister in the presidency responsible for planning, monitoring and evaluation, Eskom, the municipalities that owe it and provincial MECs - to parliament in two weeks' time, in the hope that they will find a solution.

Hlengwa later told TimesLIVE that he did not believe that the Mabuza-led interministerial task team on service delivery was not mandated to deal with the Eskom debt matter.

"We take that with a pinch of salt as the committee because deputy minister Parks Tau categorically said this function is with the IMC. That is why on the 18th [of March] we added the presidency to come and take us through all these structures they have created and who is responsible for what," he said.

"Tau would not have just said it's there when it is not there."