By Gavin du Venage
The former boss of South Africa’s electricity utility Eskom has fled the country after giving an interview in which he laid bare the extent of corruption at the embattled utility. Andre de Ruyter was appointed Eskom CEO in 2020 and tasked with ending rolling countrywide blackouts. If anything, the situation has gotten worse since he took the job, with up to 10 hours a day of ‘loadshedding’ for much of 2023.
South Africa depends on coal for most of its electricity, but most of its generation fleet is old. Age, together with a lack of maintenance preceding de Ruyter’s tenure, now results in frequent breakdowns, with up to half the fleet being disabled at any time.
De Ruyter re-introduced a maintenance schedule and sought to bring down the $30 billion in debt that Eskom owes. This entailed bringing generating units offline until they could be refurbished. He also curtailed the spending on diesel for open-cycle turbines used to prop up the grid. These measures exacerbated power cuts, angering senior politicians within the ruling African National Congress, which faces a drubbing in next year’s national elections.
De Ruyter finally quit in December 2022 after mines and energy minister Gwede Mantashe accused him of ‘treason’ in a press briefing. He was expected to leave office at the end of February but was fired this week after an hour-long sit-down interview with the ENCA television channel.
Among the revelations he made, were that at least four mafia-type crime syndicates operated on the South African coalfields. These gangs sabotaged machinery, then picked up lucrative repair contracts.
Murder squads ensured plant managers were compliant and ignored the sabotage, and rival contractors were killed if they put in competing bids. “Pretty much every week there’s an assassination,” De Ruyter said.
Undercover investigations revealed gangsters who lived lives of ‘conspicuous consumption’ that included luxury cars, houses and designer goods. There were even parties held where guests washed their hands in 15-year-old Scotch. “Why do they do this? Because they can. There’s no shame or attempt to hide it.”
A senior manager was arrested at Tutuka power station in Mpumalanga province for the theft of $5 million per month in fuel oil. The man was ‘perp walked’ by the police out of the plant. The next day however he was released from prison on the orders of a senior police official, de Ruyter said, adding that the case had since gone nowhere.
One scam uncovered was the purchase of knee guards, typically used by employees who had to kneel – such as welders. Ordinarily, these were $20 items, but Eskom was paying more than $400 each, de Ruyter said. Again, a complaint was laid but police failed to follow up despite Eskom officials meeting senior law and order officers.
Perhaps his most damning revelation, was that he raised concerns over attempts by a senior government official to remove anti-graft checks on an $8.5 billion loan fronted to South Africa by the world’s leading economies, including the USA.
The soft loan was made at the Cop26 summit in 2021, intended for renewable energy projects. De Ruyter said he grew concerned about a senior official who was trying to bypass anti-corruption rules attached to the loan.
De Ruyter said he approached a cabinet minister over the issue. The minister – whom he did not name, but who is generally thought to be Mantashe, told him to be ‘Pragmatic.’ “He told me that in order to secure the greater good, you have to allow some people to ‘eat’ a little bit,” de Ruyter said. ‘Eat’ is a South African euphemism for graft.
De Ruyter concluded by recounting how he suffered suspected cyanide poisoning in December, a day after he had resigned. He recalled that he had drunk from his personalized mug in which his assistant had prepared the beverage. The mug had sat unattended at a coffee station in a nearby executive break room.
Asked, as a final question what advice he would offer his successor, de Ruyter answered: “don’t have a personalized coffee mug.”