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Eskom: Group Chief Executive Officer with a double agenda

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Picture: Armand Hough. African News Agency (ANA) – Former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter addresses Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) alongside interim chairperson Mpho Makwana.

By Professor Sipho Seepe

The influential American public intellectual Noam Chomsky opined that “the standard technique of privatization” is to “defund, make sure things don’t work” and when “people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”

South Africa has arguably tried its hand at applying this technique in what seems to be a deliberate ploy to dismantle its State-Owned Enterprises. The underfunding of Eskom started much earlier due to the failure of the Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela administrations to heed expert advice to invest in the grid to match demand, broaden access to electricity and enable the country’s economic growth. It is noteworthy that former President Thabo Mbeki was to admit that “Eskom was right and [the] government was wrong”.

André de Ruyter, former Eskom Group Executive, took the privatisation forward by creating a fertile ground for the dismantling of Eskom. Eskom has since been on a downward spiral. The failure has been catastrophic. Ten million litres of diesel are reported to have been “burned in 2017 in the entire 12 months compared to 50 million litres of diesel a month under De Ruyter.” Discerning observers have also pointed out that hardly mid-year “the damage to the economy due to load shedding is worse than it was for the whole of 2022.”

Instead of admitting his demonstrable failure, de Ruyter has sought to ensure that he has the last word on Eskom by gifting South Africa with a book. De Ruyter was bold to accuse Minister Pravin Gordhan of micromanaging Eskom and President Cyril Ramaphosa of lying to the nation about the real cause of stage 6 load-shedding in 2019. Gordhan returned the favour by distancing himself from the dubious private intelligence-gathering operation that was set up by de Ruyter at Eskom. He went on to remark that de Ruyter “was writing a book as well, rather than focusing on his job of keeping the power stations going and providing South Africans with electricity.”

Gordhan concluded: “I think what we had was a CEO who thought he was a ‘know-all,’ and he certainly hadn’t worked in a power station before.” Well, well. Not so long ago, both Gordhan and President Ramaphosa were pleased with their man.

The book arguably achieves de Ruyter’s double agenda. One is to dismantle and prepare for the total collapse of Eskom. The second is to shift the blame. Fortunately, South Africans are not easily fooled. The publication of de Ruyter’s book, Truth to Power, has been treated with a heavy dose of cynicism and derision. A sarcastic comment that “Brian Molefe gave us electricity, De Ruyter gave us a book” sums it all. The most dismissive comment, and widely circulated in social media platforms argues: “We must not entertain the propaganda by Andre de Ruyter, the failed racist ex-Eskom Chief Executive officer. Ex-Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter thinks South Africans are easily manipulated. His latest attempt to shift the blame for his unsuccessful tenure at Eskom is a glaring case of deflection – a tactic of shifting the focus from his shortcomings onto others. Scrutinizing de Ruyter’s claims, one can’t help but notice a pattern. His narrative primarily blames blacks for Eskom’s problems. The roots of this notion come from a deep-seated societal bias that associates white individuals with success and black people with corruption and failure. It is critical to remember the period when Brian Molefe and Matshela Koko were at the helm of Eskom. During their tenure, South Africans enjoyed a steady power supply, a stark contrast to the current scenario. Despite the media’s smear campaign against Koko and Molefe, they were able to eliminate load-shedding – a crisis they had inherited upon their assumption of leadership.”

In his deposition to the Zondo Commission, Brian Molefe was unwavering.

“Under my leadership and the leadership and technical leadership people like Mr. Koko… we defeated load-shedding in August 2015. On the 8th of August 2015, we stopped load shedding. And we never had load shedding again for three years after I had left Eskom. Load shedding came back to Eskom after Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, following the one billion NASREC conference was appointed President of the country. That is when load-shedding came back. After he was appointed President of the country, he, in turn, appointed the smooth-talking dictatorial Pravin Gordhan as Minister of Public Enterprise. The less I say about Pravin Gordhan the better. As you see, the Chairperson, despite his smooth-talking public enterprises are failing and it appears that they are on a course to be sold to private interests.”

Molefe’s concerns have since become a reality. Appearing this past week before the portfolio committee on public enterprises, Bongumusa Thabethe, a senior manager in the office of the auditor-general did not mince his words. “When you look on the side of the SOEs you and I will be on the same page that the state of SOEs is not improving but deteriorating.”

The effects of load shedding on ordinary people have been eloquently described by none other than President Ramaphosa himself. In his 2023 State of the Nation Address, Ramaphosa had this to say: “We know that without a reliable supply of electricity, businesses cannot grow, assembly lines cannot run, crops cannot be irrigated, and basic services are interrupted. Load shedding means that households and supermarkets are unable to keep food fresh, the water supply is often disrupted, traffic lights do not work, and streets are not lit at night. Without a reliable supply of electricity, our efforts to grow an inclusive economy that creates jobs and reduces poverty will not succeed. Therefore, as we outline our agenda for the year ahead, our most immediate task is to dramatically reduce the severity of load shedding in the coming months and ultimately end load shedding altogether.”

As usual, this has been just nothing but talk coupled with public relations exercises that are meant to give the impression that something is being done to address our challenges. Aside from repeating what everyone knows, President Ramaphosa has remained clueless, almost on every front. Even those who were favourably disposed to him have been forced to face this brutal fact.

This is the same President who averred in court papers that load shedding could not constitute a dereliction of duty on his part or that of the national government since electricity provision falls within the competence of municipalities. “It is now accepted that municipalities are in law required to provide water and electricity to their people as a matter of public duty. This duty does not lie with the president or any of the national departments cited herein as respondents.” No sooner had his affidavit been ventilated in the courts, as always, Ramaphosa was quick to claim that he was misunderstood.

Stripped of all the drama, Molefe’s warning that load-shedding has been deliberately orchestrated for counter-revolutionary purposes appears to have been the order of the day during the days of de Ruyter. Those who stand to benefit have already raised their hands.

*Prof. Sipho Seepe is an independent political analyst.