The Financial Black Hole Called Eskom

The financial problems of South Africa are now well known across the globe. However, not many people are aware of a South African corporation named Eskom which threatens to drag the country into a major financial crisis. This state-backed Utilities Company came into the limelight as the South African government was forced to provide it with a $500 million bailout at the very last minute.

In many ways, Eskom is representative of the financial problems which South Africa is facing as a country. In this article, we will study more about the Eskom bailout as well as the factors which have led to this bailout.

Why Did The South African Government Bailout Eskom?

The South African government was forced to bailout Eskom because all the debts which have been generated by Eskom are actually guaranteed by the South African government. Hence, in the event of a default by Eskom, investors will straight away head to the South African government to obtain their dues. The finances of the South African government are already very strained, and they cannot afford to repay Eskom’s creditors.

Eskom is trying not to be dependent on the South African state. It had made some arrangements with a Chinese bank and was due to obtain a $500 million tranche of the $2.5 billion loan that has been agreed upon between the two parties. However, the Chinese central bank has changed some rules which ended up delaying the payment of $500 million to Eskom. This exposed the precarious financial situation that the company is in.

In the absence of the Chinese loan, Eskom did not have any mechanism to pay its bills. It was, therefore, looking at an inevitable bankruptcy. This is why, the South African government, which is the guarantor to Eskom’s loans had to arrange emergency funding in order to avoid a catastrophe.

What Does Eskom’s Financial Future Look Like?

The South African government may have saved the day by arranging emergency funding for the debt-strapped company. However, it does not seem like the South African company will be able to survive for very long. For instance, the company is looking at a historic loss of R30 billion for the financial year ending in 2019. Eskom will have no option but to borrow more money in order to finance this shortfall. This will add to the total debt making the situation worse.

There is only one way for Eskom to solve its problems, in the long run,, i.e., by increasing its revenue. This is the reason that the loss-making company has submitted a proposal to the South African government to allow it to raise prices. The company wants to raise prices by 15% every year for the next three years in order to be able to increase revenues sharply. However, the South African government cannot really allow that to happen since that would raise the utility bills by 50% in three years causing massive public outrage. Hence, the South African government has agreed to a meagre 5% rise over the course of the next three years which are not nearly enough to prevent the financial fiasco that Eskom is most certainly heading towards.

Real Measures Being Avoided

There is a lot of politics at play when it comes to rectifying the situation at Eskom. For instance, it is a known fact that the workforce at Eskom is overpaid. The company could save billions of dollars in cash flow if it could just lay off some of the many redundant workers that are now a part of the company. However, President Cyril Ramaphosa is about to face re-election in the next few months. Hence, he is unlikely to take any unpopular step even though they may make perfect economic sense.

This is the reason that Ramaphosa is resorting to political ploys like distraction. As per the latest plan proposed by the South African government, the debt-laden company Eskom will be split into three parts. It is not clear, how splitting the company will help solve the problem. Will the government also proceed to remove redundant jobs? Will the government privatize the company to reduce the amount of national debt? The answers to these questions are being deliberately obscured in order to waste time until the national election. The fact of the matter is that unless the underlying factors are addressed, it wouldn’t really matter whether Eskom is split into three parts or three hundred, it will continue to be bankrupt.

Why The Collapse of Eskom Could Be Catastrophic?

Eskom is the only provider of electricity to South Africa. Electricity is a vital commodity which is important for the well-being of the economy in general. The South African government, as well as the South African people, want to avoid a Venezuela style blackout at all costs. This is the reason why the government lent R6 billion to Eskom to avoid load shedding. However, Eskom’s operations are in such bad shape that they still couldn’t avoid load shedding and the whole country witnessed extended periods of Grade 4 load shedding.

Prima facie, the Eskom problem appears to be unsolvable. However, the South African government will have to find a way to keep the company afloat or else there could be serious consequences for the entire economy.

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