When Eskom declared Stage 6 load shedding recently, South Africa convulsed in a state of incredible anger. It’s not that the lights had been cut off – we have been living through this since 2007 in one form or another, it’s not even that we were promised earlier this year that the worst that we would ever experience again would be Stage 1, still harmful but a fraction of the disruption of Stage 4.
It’s that Stage 6 though was brand new, so new in fact that load shedding apps like Eskom se Push hadn’t even updated their schedules – because the cities and towns who draw up the local rosters hadn’t ever considered we could get beyond Stage 4. No one knew what it meant, how long the power would stay off for and when it would be turned off again after coming back on. The net result was despondency and anger.
The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the president was out of the country. Pravin Gordhan, the responsible minister as head of public enterprises, did speak, but all he could do was apologise and haul out that hoary old chestnut, wet coal. In any normal circumstance it should have been enough that the relevant minister appears, apologises and gives the necessary assurance that everything is being done, but the energy crisis – and Eskom – stopped being normal a long time ago and Stage 6 was a metaphor for a nation’s secret fears.
When Cyril Ramaphosa cut short his trip and flew home for a top-level briefing and the opportunity to address the nation, his efforts were further damned by his claim that there may have been sabotage involved. He might well be right. Indeed, there’s no doubt that the rain could well have played its part in precipitating this latest crisis, but what the general response points to is a very dangerous breakdown in trust and credibility by the public.
In 1982, Britain introduced the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Procedures (CHIRP). I was a commercial pilot and instructor at the time and the talk in the smoke-filled crew rooms and pilots’ bars were of near-misses, incidents that almost ended catastrophically because of pilots going on duty drunk or exhausted from flying too many hours. Nobody wanted to say anything for fear of either breaking the close-knit ranks of the flying fraternity or for incriminating themselves.
CHIRP changed all that. Published monthly, it was filled with reports of real-life incidents from pilots and engineers, air traffic controllers, owners, anyone in fact in the aviation eco-sphere. The report writers were guaranteed anonymity and the incidents were carefully edited and disassociated to prevent being used to sponsor witch hunts. There were so many incidents each month, that suddenly the air and air travel looked like the single most dangerous thing in the world. There’d be stories of pilots falling asleep and waking up to find the rest of the flight deck had fallen asleep too and that they were now 200 nautical miles past their turning point over the Atlantic with barely enough fuel to land safely.
But it started a conversation and spawned a culture of transparency and sense of ownership, the various players in the industry started self-regulating and self-organising because the shrouds had been pulled down – and everyone, especially the public and potential passengers, had become aware of not just the problems but was being done to correct them.
I experienced self-regulation through when I was flying in New Zealand, Milford Sounds in the South Island specifically. There was no air traffic control, no guidance, just protocols and self-regulation. You take off from this little airport, fly up, and then duck around. You have to do a mountain flying course to even be allowed to fly. To get there, you fly down one side of this narrow fjord and then back on the other side to the little runway at the end.
There are particular points you have to be aware of on your approach where you make your turns to line up for the runaway. On my first attempt, I did the wrong thing, I turned, albeit safely, slightly early … and then at the next pilots’ meeting, everyone started talking about me – in front of me. I apologised fulsomely, but the only thought going through my mind, in this stark peer exposure, was my vow to myself that I would never get this wrong again. And I didn’t. Flying in the South Island would turn out to be one of the safest experiences in my career, yet there was no centralised control only self-regulation through the most incredible transparency.
If we are to have any hope of turning things around in this country, we need transparency – and a blend of both centralised control and self-management. Transparency and truth are the real balms for what ails us. We have to ask why there is so much obfuscation around Eskom, why problems are always communicated after the fact, instead of in real time. The longer we sit in this reactive phase, which borrows so much from the apartheid era of unnecessary secrecy and separation between us and them, we simply feed the beast. We need no more proving of how frightened uneducated minds always look to scapegoats, convenient donkeys to pin the tail on. It’s in all of us to do this. A world of CYA – Cover Your A**e – only breeds fear, misinformation and bigger mistakes. Make reality our friend. And in the real world of making things work, it’s better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong. Then we can learn our way to precision.
The only way to change this is through education and trust. We need to pour money into education, into different ways of teaching and inculcate a lifelong love and need for learning. And learning is, in reality, a decreasing series of mistakes - or an increasing series of marginal improvements. Fast, full feedback stops little errors metastasising into disasters. When we do that, we will understand that we can’t be perfect, but we can always be perfecting. We have to become learning ninjas, we have to start taking accountability – and we have to hold both ourselves and others equally to account.
In short, let’s start behaving like adults. Let’s live in a society where critical agencies like Eskom are wholly transparent so that we can actually support them; not be kept in the dark, fed post-dated fairy tales and then held to ransom and forced to pay ever increasing tariffs, not because the alternative is too ghastly, but because we believe there is no alternative.
Let’s make truth our national asset. Let’s consign the hype and the fake news to the dustbins of history, because if anything really threatens our future it’s that.