It’s politics, stupid — Eskom board, executives and Scopa knock heads over who knew what about private corruption probe
That no love was lost between Eskom board chairperson Mpho Makwana and his ex-CEO André de Ruyter was clear right from the start. But MPs questioned the hard line in the politically steeped controversy over a privately funded investigation into cartel corruption at the power utility.
Parliament’s public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), on Wednesday grappled with Eskom board chairperson Mpho Makwana’s sophistry that as nothing new had emerged from André de Ruyter’s “utterances”, nothing needed to be done by the board.
But MPs across the party political divide questioned why the Eskom board at a special meeting after De Ruyter’s controversial e.tv interview agreed to let him go immediately, in effect cutting short his notice period by five weeks, rather than question him about his claims of high-level politicians’ involvement in organised crime that costs the debt-ridden power utility R1-billion a month.
“You had an opportunity to ask your CEO to unpack all this, yet you just released him … Was it not premature?” asked ANC MP Bheki Hadebe.
DA MP Benedicta van Minnen talked of “a wilful ignorance” of what was reported. “You evade answering questions … [to] hide behind the blanket of, ‘We didn’t get a report in our packs’.”
As the Scopa chairperson, IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa, put it, “You met with De Ruyter after his interview. Have you tested the allegations? Would it not have been of interest to you to find out where he got the information from?”
No, said Makwana. “We had asked him to stay on for handovers, but in that period it became clear he was no longer interested in Eskom’s best interest.”
Yet Makwana’s predecessor, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, told Scopa that he and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan had been informed that a privately funded intelligence-driven investigation was necessary as Eskom was wracked with sabotage and corruption.
“As a board, we were worried our crown was being destroyed when SAPS and Hawks were asleep,” added Makgoba. He said the slow pace of investigations and prosecutions was “almost lackadaisical in what needed to be done when Rome was burning”.
The then board decided the investigation into sabotage and corruption was an operational matter left to De Ruyter, who continued to brief him, said Makgoba. “What the [current] board presented now doesn’t contradict what Mr De Ruyter said.”
The controversy over De Ruyter’s statements has simmered on, not only because the ANC is suing him over his comments, but also because of the stubbornly heavy schedule of rolling blackouts that leave South Africans without electricity for up to 11 and a half hours daily.
These rotational power cuts have upped the pressure on the governing ANC, whose dipping electoral performance cost it control of key cities including Johannesburg in 2016 and reduced its parliamentary majority in 2019. Lessening the intensity and frequency of the rolling blackouts has been a stated 2024 election priority of the party.
“Load shedding was going to be the principle [argument] going into the elections to undermine the governing party. We’ll be able to resolve it. We are going to make that effort going into the future. Like I said, no amount of harassment will undermine our ability to resolve load shedding,” the electricity minister, Kgoshientsho Ramokgopa, told the National Council of Provinces in Tuesday’s Q&A session.
Some notable absences
On Wednesday, Makwana stayed on message, and his executives fell in line. At least, those who were present. It turns out Eskom acting CEO Calib Cassim went to China with Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan on an official visit “as part of efforts to fast-track the delivery of locomotives and spare parts by the Chinese state-owned CRRC e-Loco supply to Transnet”, according to the 1 May ministry statement.
Makwana on Wednesday confirmed the visit to MPs, adding: “There are also Eskom matters.” Gordhan’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but Eskom did.
“The acting Group Chief Executive (AGCE) accompanied the minister on a business trip and will communicate details regarding the business trip when he is back next week,” said acting power utility spokesperson Daphne Mokwena in a text message.
Also not present were:
- Eskom’s human resources executive, Elsie Pule, who, according to Makwana, “in her full-time role as head of human capital, she’s right at the peak of wage negotiations”;
- The head of legal services, who was “bedridden”; and
- The recently appointed Eskom generation boss, Bheki Nxumalo, who previously held the post from 2019 to 2020, was still “finding his feet”.
Makwana also held the line that the Eskom board knew nothing about the privately funded investigation, although at one point the board chairperson acknowledged De Ruyter had “mentioned it in passing”.
After questions from DA MP Alf Lees, it emerged that at least one board member remembered De Ruyter discussing this investigation with the board, as Eskom’s security boss also acknowledged she had been aware of the investigation as far back as September 2022.
“It is my opinion — and no doubt it will be opposed — but I have seldom seen an exercise of obfuscation quite as successfully done as this morning. It is perhaps rivalled by Minister Gordhan. It is a pity,” said Lees.
A toxic mix
It is a toxic mix of politics, policing and rolling blackouts. Or as Intellidex analyst Peter Attard Montalto put it, “Eskom is going from ‘activist’ to ‘tick box’ — solving load shedding as much as possible, but not rocking the boat on wider issues that are political live wires.”
At one point Makwana seemed impatient with MPs’ questions about why the board had not engaged with De Ruyter’s claims. “I humbly request we do not force matters down Eskom’s throat,” he said.
The state power utility was not a law enforcement agency, but an electricity agency and “the task at hand for us is to keep the lights on”, Makwana said in an echo of ex-CEO Brian Molefe’s mantra during Jacob Zuma’s presidency when “keeping the lights on” meant delaying required maintenance and facilitating State Capture.
De Ruyter may have been sharply criticised for pursuing an independent, privately funded investigation, but the Eskom board is also turning to independent consultants.
A panel of senior counsel is the latest. They will check what Eskom’s State Capture task team has done and “make sure there’s nothing left unhandled in our quest to deal with corruption”, according to Makwana.
Already in place at Eskom is an “engineering analyst company” that since late February has been checking system status reports, and “external resources” dealing with forensic investigations.
Eskom’s private security cost R2-billion — another De Ruyter claim that was corroborated on Wednesday.
In Scopa’s meeting with law enforcement on Tuesday, the SAPS admitted their top brass knew by July 2022 of the privately funded investigation into cartel corruption and sabotage at Eskom, corroborating key parts of De Ruyter’s statement.
Read more in Daily Maverick: SAPS knew of private Eskom corruption probe while significant portions of De Ruyter statements corroborated
Gordhan is expected before Scopa next Wednesday, 17 May. DM