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The Man in the Arena – De Ruyter was ‘marred by dust and sweat and blood’, and the same monsters await his successor

The Man in the Arena – De Ruyter was ‘marred by dust and sweat and blood’, and the same monsters await his successor
Eskom chief executive André de Ruyter at Daily Maverick's The Gathering in Cape Town on 24 November 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Contrary to popular belief, André de Ruyter did have a plan to end the energy crisis. He firmly believed if, given the necessary autonomy, resources and political backing, Eskom had the wherewithal to resolve the energy crisis.

On the day that his resignation became public, André de Ruyter’s WhatsApp profile pic was a famous quote from Theodore Roosevelt which reads: 

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

What became known as the “Man in the Arena” quote comes from a speech Roosevelt delivered on 23 April 1910 at 3pm at the Sorbonne in Paris, a year after he left office as president of the US. The quote follows a less memorable, but in light of De Ruyter’s resignation, an equally apt quote from the same speech:

“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” he said. “A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities – all these are marks, not… of superiority but of weakness.”

A copy of the famous “Man in the Arena” quote is what Nelson Mandela gave to Francois Pienaar before that famous 1995 World Cup rugby match that became such a powerful symbol of the days of hope that followed democratisation in 1994. It resurfaces now in the days of darkest despair as we now peer into a widening abyss of intensifying and prolonged rolling blackouts, deepening economic crisis and widening inequalities. And all this because there are too many in power who have lost “contact with life’s realities”, in particular the complexities of our deepening energy crisis. It is much easier to face what seems to be incomprehensible “with a sneer” rather than with the courage of the “man or woman in the arena”. 

That “man in the arena” has, up until now, been De Ruyter. Taking up office in December 2019, he knew full well that he was stepping into the arena. He was motivated by a sense of “national service”, a sense of his own towering strength as a competent man of integrity, and a passionate commitment to honest, clean governance that he knew cut against the ingrained corruption that had hollowed out Eskom during the State Capture years.

Read in Daily Maverick: “André de Ruyter had a year from hell – and then he lost his political cover

De Ruyter knew from the start that he had to rebuild a top management team that was capable of transforming Eskom’s toxic organisational culture. This included building up a strategic management capacity that could be able to formulate a viable vision and implementation strategy to address the energy crisis. To this end he actively identified and promoted young black professionals from within the ranks of Eskom, and beyond. 

About nine months after moving into his office at Megawatt Park, he came to a fundamental realisation that has changed the course of South Africa’s economic history. He realised that Eskom’s 90 electricity generation units in its 15 coal-fired power stations were in much worse shape than he had ever anticipated. He also realised that this meant they could not be repaired quickly enough to halt the gradual decline of the Energy Availability Factor (EAF) that was causing rising levels of load shedding. 

And that logically led to a conclusion that surprised him: that unless new generation capacity was brought onto the grid within two years, there would be permanent load shedding by 2024. 

Could that be done with more coal-fired power generation, nuclear or gas? No, because they were either too expensive (nuclear), or unfundable in a decarbonising world (coal), or unavailable on scale (gas). The only alternative was large-scale renewables because of South Africa’s rich solar, wind and mineral resources – a new build programme resulting in 5GW of new renewables per annum. 

It was this Damascus-road experience that led this hard-boiled industrial man to say the words that should become his most famous quote: “It’s time to beat our coal shovels into windmills.” All the most reputable scientific research organisations within and outside academia generated research and models that confirmed his conclusions. 

Contrary to popular belief, De Ruyter did have a plan to end the energy crisis. He firmly believed that, if given the necessary autonomy, resources and political backing, Eskom had the wherewithal to resolve the energy crisis. He dreamed about doing this with minimal support and interference by the government. By the end of his first year in office De Ruyter had crafted a carefully worked-out strategy. In essence this had three legs: 

  • Rapid acceleration of a renewables build programme by the private sector so that there could be new generation capacity on the grid that would, in turn, create the space for Eskom to gradually remove those generation units from the grid that needed to be fully overhauled over months, not days or weeks;
  • Closure of the oldest power stations, but only if new generation capacity was available, which in his view would be gas and renewables; and
  • A planned maintenance programme aimed at reversing the legacy of his predecessors, which was the short-sighted view that maintenance could be compromised in order to keep the lights on – a programme that could be upscaled once new generation capacity came online.

Although driven by the harsh technical realities of Eskom’s gradually collapsing fleet, De Ruyter soon realised that they underpinned strategic opportunities that could address other challenges. He realised that the technical solution could underpin a Just Transition that would give Eskom access to international climate finance in a post-Paris Agreement world, and unlock large quantities of domestic investment in renewables by local public and private financial institutions that had learnt from the REIPPPP that renewables are a good investment.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Gwede Mantashe’s anti-Eskom push could shove SA into oblivion

The Just Transition would, at the same time, provide the basis for addressing the social justice challenges in Mpumalanga which was already facing the consequences of coal closure. 

Unsurprisingly, De Ruyter’s strategy was a huge gamble. But under the circumstances, the only really honest and technologically rational option. It was a gamble because Eskom is not responsible for procuring additional generation capacity. Nor is the minister of public enterprises responsible for this, to whom De Ruyter reported via his board.

Instead, procuring renewables was the responsibility of a minister who publicly declared that he thought De Ruyter was incompetent, despite the fact that he was bound by a Cabinet decision to appoint De Ruyter back in 2019. The same minister also repeatedly dismissed the notion that the South African economy could rely for its energy supply on a system of renewables backed up with batteries and gas. 

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In short, De Ruyter’s strategy had a fundamental flaw: contrary to what he really wanted, the solution to Eskom’s crisis of delivery depended heavily on the government – and in particular Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe – coming to the party. That never happened. Indeed, a week before he resigned, Mantashe effectively accused De Ruyter of plotting treason.    

Rooting out corruption

De Ruyter may be remembered as the industrial man who converted to a proponent of the Just Transition, but this was not the primary reason he was “marred by dust and sweat and blood” in the arena. It was his uncompromising commitment to rooting out corruption in Eskom that brought him up against his most deadly and ruthless foes. 

A closer examination of a day-in-the-life of André de Ruyter might well reveal that he spent an extraordinary amount of time addressing corruption, theft, sabotage, crooked contracts, incompetent law enforcement authorities, threats of violence and defending himself against legal attacks. He knew his life was in danger, not because he wanted to “beat coal shovels into windmills” but because he wanted to stop the looting of Eskom. This is not a man who was plotting to overthrow the state. On the contrary, he was plotting to save the state from presiding over the collapse of the energy system and, therefore, the economy. 

One of De Ruyter’s achievements that very few will appreciate is that true to form, he converted Eskom from a corporation that used to take great pride in its culture of secrecy into a corporation that openly made available information and data about what was really going on. This cannot be underestimated. It will be hard to shut this down in future, but not impossible. It has resulted in the availability of an extraordinary amount of information that research and civil society organisations have been able to use to reveal the corruption, but also the technical options available for keeping the lights on. 

Finally, De Ruyter led the process of engaging the domestic and international investment community to generate the large-scale investments required to implement the Just Transition. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “Dark, Dumb and Dangerous: Inside South Africa’s perfect (electrical) storm

He built up a level of confidence in Eskom’s capacity to deliver despite the obvious challenges facing the utility. The Just Energy Transition Partnership Investment Plan (JETP-IP) announced at COP27 in November 2022 by the South African government originates in ideas that De Ruyter began proposing as far back as 2020. Eskom’s in-house modelling team reached conclusions that aligned with modellers at CSIR, UCT, NBI and Meridian Economics that it was indeed viable to transition to a renewables-based energy system, including battery, pump storage and gas back-up. This consensus underpinned the Just Transition Framework developed by the Presidential Climate Commission and approved by Cabinet, as well as the JETP-IP also approved by Cabinet. It is unlikely to be reflected in the much-awaited revised Integrated Resource Plan that will be published by the DMRE. 

Ultimately, De Ruyter lost the propaganda war. An increasingly influential group of ex-Eskom CEOs, so-called energy experts who were given airtime in the media despite their failure to justify their conclusions, some policy advisers and a few powerful political leaders managed to give credibility by repetition to the unsubstantiated argument that load shedding can be ended by “just fixing the machines”. Former Eskom CEO Jacob Maroga has played a particularly influential role in legitimising this view. Ted Blom is another. But when grilled by a good journalist, Blom’s argument becomes contradictory, and runs as follows:

  • There are 49GW of installed capacity available, which is more than enough to meet demand;
  • Yes (after prompting), the machines are not in a good state because they have not been properly maintained (including by the current CEO);
  • It will take at least five years to properly repair the machines with a couple of billion rands.

And therein lies the rub: we don’t have five years (or we do, if you want five more years of rolling blackouts), nor do we have a couple of billion rands. So, yes, there is sufficient installed capacity, but the impossibility of Blom’s solution means the EAF continues to plummet. No future CE of Eskom will escape this reality. 

If Cabinet decides to bring in the “just fix it” brigade, then they will have the opportunity to prove the correctness of their assumptions. They will come up against the exact same technical realities that De Ruyter faced, with increasingly scarce financial resources to resolve the problems. 

If this is correlated with a deceleration of the renewables new build programme (which seems likely), then we should look forward to the continuation of rolling blackouts for at least the next five years, and some have suggested 10 years. The next individual in the arena will face exactly the same monsters that the last one faced. 

The problem is systemic

De Ruyter is the 13th CE of Eskom in recent years. He has lasted longer than the previous 11. This points to an obvious basic question: if the solution was always about “getting the right man for the job”, then why is it that none of the individuals succeeded in resolving the energy crisis? The answer is simple: the problem is not a matter of the right or wrong individual – the problem is systemic. We face a systemic crisis – the energy system is a complex adaptive system that cannot be changed overnight by the actions of a powerful individual. 

What matters is how an individual like the CE of Eskom fits into a wider coalition of forces that is bound together by a shared vision and relationships of trust that make it possible to make the big, bold and audacious decisions that are required to end the energy crisis. However, once again an individual will be appointed based on the assumption that finally, this time, the right individual has been appointed. But once again, this will be the wrong solution to the incorrect definition of the problem.

The right solution is to appoint someone who is part of a coalition of forces within Eskom and across the political system that is prepared to honestly face the technological and financial challenges without delusional claims about quick fixes, outdated technologies and unrealisable investment potentials. 

Will this new individual in the arena – man or woman –  be the one “who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if [s]he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his[/her] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”? History will judge. In the meantime, go out and order for your household or business a solar rooftop system with battery back-up that will at least protect you from the gradual collapse of the most important public infrastructure that should be binding us together as a nation in a way that provides full universal access to reliable, affordable energy forever. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • R S says:

    The sad reality is things can be fixed. The ANC, its cronies, and those who are milking Eskom dry or are benefitting from the status quo just don’t want us to.

  • Daniel Cohen says:

    “In the meantime, go out and order for your household or business a solar rooftop system with battery back-up that will at least protect you from the gradual collapse of the most important public infrastructure that should be binding us together as a nation in a way that provides full universal access to reliable, affordable energy forever.”

    If you can afford it!!!

    But an excellent overview of the state of play

  • Jon Quirk says:

    The President and Gwede Mantashe should be made to read this in great detail. Their collective actions shame us all, and almost certainly will result in total collapse at Eskom.

    • Peter Tuffin says:

      I was thinking that one of those two should resign from whatever other responsibilities they have and volunteer for the Eskom CE job. Mantashe in particular seems t0 know exactly what is needed.

  • Bruce Young says:

    Well written article. Thanks Mark.

    Those that can afford it will be installing batteries and solar but the poor will suffer and deindustrialisation will accelerate. Without reliable electricity South Africa becomes increasingly uninvestable.

  • MD L says:

    Gwede Mantashe and his cronies are the core problem.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    How do we get rid of Mantashe?

  • While SA allows the corruption, the looting and the kleptocracy to continue it will remain impossible to solve the persistent blackouts.
    Address the corrupt via radical reform of the criminal justice system by proper implementation of the Concourt’s decisions in the Glenister litigation to create the conditions in which blackouts will end.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Great article and most enlightening. Would it really take 5 years to fix the machines though? Give them yo the private sector to tun instead

  • Laurence Erasmus says:

    Sadly for the country, following Mantashe’s despicable comments calling De Ruyter a traitor, Cyril showed he has a jellyfish spine. Both Cyril and Gwede demonstrated that the economic interests of the ANC elite come before that of the country!

  • Hiram C Potts says:

    A serious lack of collective intelligence, cognitive ability and integrity in our govt. coupled with a huge amount of greed, arrogance, stupidity and ineptitude, have condemned SA to a future of darkness.

    The damage and rot is so deep how can they ever fix it?
    As others have said, if you can afford it, the best thing you thing can do right now is to invest in alternative energy sources for your home and business. For the less fortunate members of our population it’s going to be back to wood, coal and charcoal.

    • Maria Janse van Rensburg says:

      It is time that President Ramaphosa reshuffles his cabinet. There are strong calls from within the ANC that people with the correct qualifications and experience must be appointed. That includes Ministers and Directors General. It will cement his programs and South Africans can at long last start to benefit. He must just ensure that their employment contracts contain a condition compelling them to abide by the National Development Plan and all other policies that have been developed to save South Africa and that they agree to tender their resignation should they no longer support the plan they agreed to implement. Mr De Ruyter was the first person who used the term “consequence management” when he suspended two power station managers in September 2020. See Metro News 5 September 2020 – Eskom suspends “Apathetic Managers”. Consequence management is not being implemented in any of the three tiers of government because it takes courage and a commitment to serving South Africa and its citizens above your own interests.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    South Africa is very much dependent on private/foreign investments………….
    Who is going to invest in a country without a reliable source of energy?

  • Trevor Pope says:

    Hear, hear! Excellent article. The systemic constraints are not just technical and financial, but include policies (BEE, EE, localisation, cadre deployment, vested interests, etc) that have effectively closed down the possible options to zero. Expect the ANC to do nothing (they can’t even get their end of the year party to run to schedule), so the advice in the last paragraph is particularly relevant. (And include a water tank as well…)

  • Chris Herselman says:

    Thank you for saying it clearly Mark. Mantashe and his cronies are ideologically blinkered, thus incapable of seeing the bigger picture. South Africa’s future seems bleak with fools like them in powerful positions. They will always look for scapegoats to blame for the mistakes of those in their own ranks.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    The understanding of the board are can be shown that their key metric is an EAF of 70% by April – not a chance. I have seen the numbers – they are getting worse. It is very difficult to turn around something like this. I did it as Engineering manager of a new job and it took years. There is a massive backlog of problems and people that have to be trained properly to do their jobs. For instance one thing only. Those boilers are 80 bar high pressure boilers that run at the creep temp of steel. The tubes have to be inspected and cut out and replaced regularly as they creep. If this is not done they have massive failures – and it is a big job. Guess what? This has not been done so now we are seeing the failures. They will not go away. I will bet my house that they will not be able to get that EAF and hold it. In addition the staff and board’s KPI’s should include planned maintenance hit rate. If this is not in their KPI’s you get exactly what we have now – the plant run down for short term gains.

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    Is this the same Mantashe who delays mining licences and is unable to do ANYTHING about Zama Zamas? I hope that he and Cyril are reflecting on the more than 50% loss of ANC members……………….

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    Good on you Andre’.
    Months ago I wrote that you should leave Eskom and spend the time walking your dog, spend quality time with your family and install solar panels so you could watch the TV news at night to see the total collapse of Eskom. You were trying to fart against thunder!
    Having given it back to Mantashe. he has what he wanted and now he can find his knight in shining armour.

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