André de Ruyter, ANC and the end of Eskom as we know it
The fallout from Andre de Ruyter’s television interview and his subsequent ‘release’ from his notice period by the board of Eskom has set much of South African society alight. The reaction to his comments reveals much about our country at the moment, and perhaps more than almost any other current issue demonstrates the deep fissures within it.
It is exceedingly unlikely that this story is over with de Ruyter’s exit from Eskom. There are many variables: who was the Cabinet Minister he mentioned as accepting likely corruption, does the now former CEO have evidence of that person saying it, and what implications will this have for the future of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet? All of these could be crucial to what happens next, and to several political careers. But, while we are still in a perilous position with regard to our power situation, the tabling of last week’s budget reflects some signs of real change, and for the first time, some kind of solution could be in sight.
There can be no doubt of the impact of de Ruyter’s eTV interview, in which he claimed that “the evidence pointed that way” to the ANC seeing Eskom as a feeding trough, that it’s losing R1-billion a month to theft, that a senior ANC member is involved, and that a sitting Cabinet Minister said it was inevitable that some of the just transition financing would be stolen.
Different organisations, with vastly different constituencies, in their statements reveal opposite interests in our society.
The Black Business Council said they were glad de Ruyter was gone and that he was “incompetent”; Defend Our Democracy said he was a “hero”; the ANC said they would sue him for making the claims against their party; while the ANC Veterans League called “upon the President to afford him the protection of a whistle-blower”.
Meanwhile, SAFTU said in their public statements they would take him to court to force him to reveal which Minister and which ANC person were involved. It is important that, in their letter to de Ruyter, they also say:
“The purpose of this letter is not to pit ourselves against you. Instead, we wish to take action against those responsible regarding the criminal activity you have described.”
His actions even led, not incorrectly, to an opinion piece about the role of the Broederbond in Eskom in the past.
Read more on Daily Maverick: After the Bell: There are implications to André de Ruyter’s public revelations about the Eskom crisis
At the same time, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, Gwede Mantashe was quoted as saying that de Ruyter “must not throw a stone in a bush and hope an animal will come out”.
However, on Sunday, the ANC released a second statement, in which they appear to be throwing even more stones in that same bush. The party claims to be pitted against corruption, and then threatens that “failure by Mr De Ruyter to bring such information forward and report it in line with his obligations will result in the ANC laying Section 34 charges against him”.
It is not clear if the ANC understands what would happen, were it to sue anyone who says it is corrupt, or has corrupt members. Its recent history, its inability to act against its own members, the fact that so many people implicated in the Zondo Commission are still in the executive (including Mantashe) and that 40% of its delegates voted for Zweli Mkhize at its recent conference are all testimony to that. (This week marked two years since the Digital Vibes scandal was broken. – Ed)
And for many voters, of course, it is no surprise that the ANC, or at least some senior members, may benefit from corruption at Eskom. It has been proven in the past, through Chancellor House and the Hitachi deal. On Friday morning, an ANC spokesperson, Hope Papo, was not even able to say if the ANC had in fact paid back the money it received through that deal.
Meanwhile, as expected, this entire crisis has been shot through with race issues.
When De Ruyter was appointed, the fact that he was white in a country with such high levels of racialised inequality raised a lot of criticism. Appointing a white person to head the most important SOE could be seen by some almost as a betrayal, or a sign that black executives are not seen as competent by a black-run government.
And it is also understandable that racial identities can play a role in the reaction to his interview and his early departure from Eskom. It is hard to find one white voice which has said he was wrong to say what he said. It’s never that simple, of course, and there are several organisations led by black people who have shown him support.
Action SA said last week that they “would like to express our appreciation for the dedication, bravery, and sacrifice Mr De Ruyter displayed in exceptionally challenging circumstances,” referring to him as an ethical leader.
At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the issue of race, or ethnicity, and the position of CEO of Eskom may not be over yet.
On Friday 24 February the board of Eskom announced that its Chief Financial Officer, Calib Cassim, is now the acting CEO. For the moment there is no indication of when a permanent person for what Bloomberg has called the “toughest job in world energy” will be appointed.
This means that Cassim could be in the position for many months, or even longer. And, given the role of racial and ethnic identities in our country, his own identity could well become an issue in the future.
Meanwhile, it is likely that the focus will move to the simple questions about who De Ruyter was talking about, when he referred to the Minister who said corruption was inevitable, and the ANC person who is benefitting from Eskom’s corruption.
Already City Press has suggested that the Minister who made the comment was Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, and that it is, in fact, two people, in Cabinet at the time of the report’s publication on Sunday morning, who were involved.
This leads to questions about what Mantashe meant when he said De Ruyter “should not throw stones at the bushes”.
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Firstly, if De Ruyter’s aim is to flush out corruption, the question may be asked, why not? Why should he not actually try to force it into the open?
Recent history has shown that sometimes, given the often incompetent, under-resourced and sometimes politicised nature of the Hawks, going to the police does not lead to results. But going public does.
This gets to perhaps the biggest question of all, what is De Ruyter’s plan? Is he now going to withdraw from the battlefield? Or is he preparing to make public the information which he has, and to reveal who he is talking about?
Both Gordhan and Mantashe should be well aware of this kind of “throwing stones” strategy, as both have played a key role in such an operation before.
In 2016 the Financial Times newspaper reported that Ajay Gupta had offered then Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas the position of Finance Minster and a huge amount of money, so long as he would implement certain policies.
Jonas refused to answer questions for several days, while the entire country was in turmoil. Then, the Finance Minister at the time, Gordhan, held a press conference in Sandton. He was asked (by this reporter) about the allegations made by Jonas. Gordhan said very little, but made it clear there was more to come.
Later that week, Jonas released an affidavit, explaining what had happened and who had been at the meeting. It played a key role in the end of Jacob Zuma’s claim that his presidency was not being controlled by the Guptas.
It may now be that some in the ANC have much to fear from a similar tactic. That if De Ruyter is indeed planning to place this all on the record, much more turmoil could come.
This makes the ANC’s stance, and its statements that De Ruyter must go public, so fascinating.
Because there is now a situation in which he has very little to lose. And if he were to go ahead and name names, and provide evidence, this entire story could change dramatically.
Key to this is whether he could in fact provide this evidence. It is well known that there are several investigations under way at Eskom, that money has been looted. But to link this to an ANC figure may require more than that.
For people like Gordhan and Mantashe this could be the risk. For example, De Ruyter may have a recording of the conversation in which a Minister said that corruption was inevitable.
If, of course, it is one of them, or both.
In the meantime, for millions of people, the fighting at the top of Eskom is not the issue. The issue is fixing the problems and getting the power grid to work.
Here, despite everything, last week may be important for what looks like progress.
In the budget, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana announced that the R254-billion debt relief from the government for Eskom was on the condition that it does not invest in any new power generation projects. It is only allowed to invest in transmission and distribution.
Eskom is getting out of the power generation business.
Also, Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo said that National Treasury would never support a monopoly on power generation again.
That, tied to the incentives for businesses and homeowners to invest in solar power, effectively means the end of Eskom as we know it.
It also means that the private sector is now going to be in the driving seat when it comes to new power generation.
As a result, there will be less scope for the type of government corruption and incompetence that we have seen with Eskom in the past, dating all the way back to around 1998.
Of course, it will take time for this sun to rise fully, but change is coming.
Both to Eskom, and perhaps, to important leaders in the ANC. DM