Outgoing Eskom chief executive officer Andre de Ruyter says that the available evidence shows that the governing African National Congress (ANC) sees the embattled power utility as an ‘eating trough’.
In a broad-sweeping interview with journalist Annika Larsen on Tuesday evening (21 February), the CEO admitted to failing to prevent load shedding in South Africa, and touched on what he sees as entrenched corruption within government and governance around Eskom.
When asked by Larsen whether he believes those in the ANC see Eskom as a “feeding trough”, de Ruyter said that evidence would indicate this is the case.
“I expressed my concern to a senior government minister about attempts – in my view – to water down governance around the $8.5 billion US dollars that, by and large through Eskom intervention, we got at COP26.
“The response was essentially, ‘you know, you have to be pragmatic – in order to pursue the greater good, you have to enable some people to eat a little bit’. So yes, I think it is entrenched.”
The CEO did not mention which minister he approached, but confirmed that they were still in government. He also revealed that the attitude of ministers towards reports of alleged corruption was blasé.
“When we pointed out that there was one particular high-level politician that was involved in this, the minister in question looked at the senior official and said, ‘I guess it was inevitable that this would come out anyway’. Which suggests that this wasn’t news (to them),” he said.
De Ruyter also warned that the party was more interested in short-term political gains than long-term sustainability for the country.
“They want what will win them the next election – not what will keep the country going for the next two decades. I think that balance has been disturbed by turning Eskom into a state-owned entity under the direct control of the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE),” he said. “That department has played a very interventionist role, micromanagement even, at Eskom.
He said the root cause of this is the governing party’s roots in communism, which focuses on state control and is something that confuses diplomats and disincentivises investment.
“There’s a narrative that the state should control everything. Unfortunately the ghosts of Marx and Lenin haunt the halls of Lethuli House. People are still firmly committed to a 1980s-style ideology. They still address one another as comrade.
“When such individuals talk to foreign diplomats and foreign investors, the puzzlement with which they leave those meetings is really a detriment to South Africa’s credibility. People say ‘we haven’t heard this kind of language since the fall of the Berlin Wall – what does this mean? How do these people think?'”
Eskom is under siege by high-level criminality, from syndicates that steal coal, diesel and infrastructure to dodgy contracts and procurement irregularities. He said that criminality is closely tied to politics and feeds into significant initiatives, placing them at risk.
“There is very little explanation for the vociferous opposition to the Just Energy Transition,” he said. One explanation for the pushback is that there is no clear path “showing a way for the comrades to eat”.
“There are so many vested interests in the coal value chain that the threat of decarbonisation – even though we’re talking about a multi-decade move away from coal – that is why it is so eagerly opposed,” he said.
De Ruyter has placed much of his focus and energy during his time at Eskom on tackling criminality and promoting a move towards renewable energy, making him an enemy of the powers that be.
The CEO’s focus on going after the criminal elements within and around Eskom resulted in minister resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe calling him a ‘policeman’, who was more focused on ‘chasing criminals’ than ending the load shedding crisis.
Mantashe and other senior ANC officials in government have taken an alarmingly antagonistic approach to de Ruyter, with the energy minister even going as far as accusing him of treason. Mantashe – who is also a big proponent of coal – said that Eskom’s management was trying to overthrow the state by not resolving load shedding.
Following these remarks, no government officials came to de Ruyter’s defence. The DPE, which had expressed confidence in him before, sat silent – and even president Cyril Ramaphosa had nothing to say. This lack of support and outright hostility towards him led to him tendering his resignation late last year.
Speaking to Larsen, de Ruyter admitted that load shedding is the one critical measurement he failed on.
“I think I failed regarding the readily measurable objectives – load shedding. That’s the big elephant in the room,” he said. However, he said that he believes he successfully defined a strategy for Eskom to get out of the crisis – something that is now “irrevocably set”.
Under de Ruyter, Eskom has effectively cemented a move towards renewable energy. The national government proudly boasts about thousands of megawatts of these projects in the pipeline for the country to resolve the energy crisis.
But despite the progress and capacity in the pipeline to boost the grid, de Ruyter said that 2023 will be a challenging year for South Africa.
When asked how tough, he said higher stages of load shedding are coming.
“Stage 6 during winter is highly probable – maybe worse,” he said. This means South Africans should expect more load shedding for longer.
Eskom is currently in the process of reviewing its load shedding schedules and the regulations that govern them. Energy experts and analysts have warned that stage 8 load shedding will likely hit by the middle of the year, even as high as stage 10 looms large.
De Ruyter will be stepping down as Eskom CEO at the end of March 2023.