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Death threats, sabotage and loadshedding by Eskom...

13 Jan 2023

Eskom boss André de Ruyter on death threats, sabotage and South Africa grappling with stage 6 loadshedding

Eskom CEO André de Ruyter is leaving the embattled power utility at the end of March and said it's an honour to have led an organisation of its size. “I’m really gratified that I was entrusted with this opportunity, and obviously disappointed that I couldn’t not achieve all of the objectives that I’d set myself,” he said at a virtual news conference a few days after resigning.

"I think the circumstances surrounding Eskom are well known – the operational challenges, the financial challenges, the challenges surrounding societal matters including crime and corruption, as well as some of the issues that we had experienced in delivering the unbundling of Eskom and making sure that we can achieve our objectives in that regard," he added.

He's not leaving the parastatal for another job, but will be taking some time away to spend time with his family. It's been a taxing few years, something he spoke about in an interview with YOU just three months ago.

The story below was originally published in 13 October issue of YOU.

The lights go out the moment he walks into the room.

“Sorry,” a waiter says. “Loadshedding. The generator will kick in in a moment.”

Eskom CEO André de Ruyter’s wry smile shows he’s aware of the irony.

He takes a seat at a table in the boardroom adjacent to the clubhouse restaurant at Dainfern Golf Estate in the north of Johannesburg and calls the waiter over.

“Cappuccino, please,” he says.

“I need caffeine.”

It’s easy to see why. South Africa is in the grip of the worst period of loadshedding in SA history and De Ruyter (54) is in the firing line. There are calls for his head, a sophisticated bugging device was found in his car, there are reports of power stations being sabotaged and he’s getting death threats. “I just got another one,” he tells YOU. “It says, ‘I’m going to come and take out your whole family’.”

Which is why he has hired bodyguards and won’t discuss his loved ones. “They didn’t choose this job,” he says. “I can’t leave my front gate without my bodyguards, which limits my family’s movements too.” A new Eskom board has just been appointed and it remains to be seen whether the strategy they come up with will involve De Ruyter keeping his job. So in the light of all this, isn’t he tempted to just throw in the towel?

“I’m a little tired of these threats,” he admits.

“Can I do my job better? For sure. Have I made mistakes? For sure. But what I can tell you is that I’m really trying to act in the country’s best interests. “I’m not trying to enrich myself or my family or steal money. I don’t have an underhanded agenda. But when these things happen [the bugging and threats], I want to ask, ‘What are we doing here? What’s the national agenda, the plan, the vision to take the country to a better place if people who are trying – not always successfully, but at least trying – are being spied on, followed, threatened?’”

Eskom is on its knees. The public utility doesn’t have enough reserve energy to avoid loadshedding when something breaks down or maintenance is done and the crisis is crippling the country.

De Ruyter says he’s been “pleading“ with the government for between 4GW and 6GW of new capacity for the past three years, but “progress isn’t happening fast enough”.

He has a plan for getting some of the extra capacity and he says it won’t cost taxpayers anything and there won’t be the need to wait for government approval.

To generate green energy, you need a range of equipment, including equipment to convert the energy into electricity, and an electricity network to take it to where it needs to be.

“Eskom already has all the infrastructure in place for companies to erect large solar farms in the middle of coal country (Mpumalanga), where the impact of the closing of old power stations would be felt most.

“Now, our plan is to lease the land adjacent to the power stations on a long-term basis. Why rent and not sell? Well, if we sell, someone can sit on that land and use it for grazing. We want to control what happens there. If you’re not erecting your renewable energy equipment, we want the right to remove you. That’s one of the terms.”

The green energy that’s added to the network would then benefit Eskom and the tenant.

Eskom will also make a small income from the lease and get green credits – something that makes the utility attractive to foreign investors in the context of climate change.

The first lease contracts on only 4 000 ha of land would add 2 000 MW – the whole of Koeberg’s generation capacity – to the grid. Then there’s still 28 000 ha of land left to develop.

But because Eskom is a state-owned entity, everything usually needs government approval – and some government officials are dragging their feet when it comes to getting rid of coal generation. There has also been stalling at the highest level and bureaucratic red tape hampers progress. The government is working on the energy crisis now, De Ruyter says, “but it’s taken stage 6 loadshedding to force their hand”.

Sabotage at power stations is an issue too. Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan recently confirmed the prevalence of sabotage, which are attempts to prevent corruption from being addressed. Sabotage has a direct effect on loadshedding, which casts people, such as De Ruyter, in a bad light in an effort to oust them.

It’s reminiscent of state capture, Gordhan says.

Another problem is company culture, De Ruyter says. He often visits power stations and “you arrive there and the floors are wet. You know they’ve quickly cleaned them that morning.” He makes a point of veering off the itinerary during power station visits. “You go into the workshops and open the toolboxes and it’s tragic. Things are gone. I’ll ask the manager, ‘What’s going on here?’ ‘Yes, we know, we understand’, he’ll say.”

“Yesterday, I was walking through a power station with management. There’s an empty Coke bottle here, pieces of cloth over there, a pipe that’s not connected to anything. I walk into the control room and I’m a little taller than average, so I always look on top of cupboards. There are documents from 2018, covered in a layer of dust. The company culture issues and lack of discipline are just as much of a problem as the stations that haven’t been maintained.”

He recalls two instances when the SA flag was hanging upside down at MegaWatt Park, Eskom’s headquarters in Midrand, Gauteng. “I had to storm out of my office to address it. These things mean a lot to me. It’s an indication of a systemic breakdown of culture, the disintegration of pride.”

De Ruyter has suspended several management officials for poor performance and management, most recently at Koeberg.

“I must add that there are a lot of good people at Eskom who work incredibly hard – so hard I can’t keep up. And I have a lot of respect for them. But if the company’s CEO is having to walk around picking up litter, then we have a discipline and management problem.”

Still, he has no plans to quit.

“I’ll stay as long as I feel I can contribute. It’s not because I think I’m better than anyone else, but who wants to take up this position? Which legitimate businessperson without a hidden agenda would want my position? “I’m not married to the job, but I have this rather idealistic thing of, ‘Here’s something I truly believe in’."

Reading helps De Ruyter unwind from the chaos and stress. “I’m reading a book about the philosophy of stoicism,” he says.

Stoicism teaches you to remove yourself from the chaos and to think clearly and calmly about everything.

“I also enjoy listening to audiobooks because I can do that when I’m making tea or showering. I’m busy with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And Dickens – I love Charles Dickens. It takes you to a different world.”

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