A century of catastrophe: Eskom coal plants contaminate the atmosphere... and the wrecking train steams ahead - DAVID HALLOWES

ESKOM has been a slow-moving catastrophe for nearly a century. Or rather, it was the heart of the minerals energy complex MEC which devastated the people across half a continent. The men came in on those trains from Namibia and Malawi, from Zambia and Zimbabwe, from Angola and Mozambique, from Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland, from the locations, reserves and Bantustans of the Union, the Republiek and even still the Republic. Conscripted to dig deep down in the earth, conscripted into the stinking hostels, taken from their families, from their fields and herds, they cursed the coal train that brought them to the city of gold. And worse for the place of coal. Give it a last blast for Masekela.

The trains and the hostels are gone mostly. Now they come by rattling taxi and shack down under tin with the heat beating in. A room of their own maybe two square metres, scarcely enough for a bed and a chair. Just half a metre to the next shack and the air full of coal dust and desperation. In a ruined land, they have the hope of risking life for a pittance. The furnaces burn bright across the coal fields. Sour acid smoke blasts from the stacks and settles over the land. In the neighbourhood, people gag on bad air and more die than the Republic would have you count. And the wrecking train comes on.

Faster now and faster. Eskom piled debt on debt to build Medupi and Kusile to reproduce the minerals energy economy that ruined the land and wasted the people. Now it is razing even that economy, a heavy coal train running at express speed at the end of the line. And the end of the line is in the decorous halls of the Republic's Treasury.

It is 20 years since the 1999 White Paper on Energy promised cheap power for ever and the privatisation of power stations. It is 15 years since the penny dropped: no one would buy a power station to produce cheap power at a loss. Government then declared itself a developmental state and declared Eskom a source of strategic investment. It is 14 years since Eskom contracted Hitachi to build boilers to profit Chancellor House and the ruling party the once upon a time party of emancipation.

It is 12 years since they started digging the foundations for Medupi and 11 years since they realised they got it wrong and had to start again. It is 11 years since they started hiking electricity tariffs to pay the inflated bills of every shark nosed national and transnational corporation that smelt spilt money like chum in the water. It's 11 years since national Load shedding Round One. It's 11 years since capital's watch dogs on Wall Street downgraded Eskom because, they said, the tariff hikes were not enough. It's 11 years since Eskom went begging to the World Bank. It's 11 years since Wall Street crashed the world economy. It's 10 years since Treasury guar anteed R176 billion of Eskom's debt. It's 10 years since we told them it would all end in tears. It's10 years since Republic's ministers lined up to say we were unpatriotic. It's nine years since Treasury doubled down on the bet and guaranteed R350bn.

It's nine years since the Zupta team smelt the chum in the water. It's five years since Load shedding Round Two. Fast forward... very fast forward with Brian and Trillion and McKinsey and KPMG. And on to Load shedding Round Three. And Four. Misfit boilers and baghouses. And all the sums are crashing down. R350bn is no longer enough. Eskom's debt runs past R500bn without pausing. After quintupling the tariff, its income doesn't cover the interest payments. The wrecking train is running full speed through the Treasury buffers at the end of the line. Outside, beyond the numbers, is the ruined earth. The groundWork and community struggle continues into the next 20 years!

David Hallowes researches the state of environmental injustice for ground Work.