De Ruyter’s devastating whistle-bomb

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the repercussions of the outgoing Eskom CEO's exit interview with eNCA


Afloat but battered. Abandoned. Many miles off our planned route.

It’s beginning to feel as if we’re adrift on the political equivalent of that infamous 19th-century ghost ship, Mary Celeste. Admittedly, unlike the Celeste, we’ve still got a captain and crew. But given what a bunch of scurvy, treacherous knaves they are, it would be a boon, not a burden, were they to vanish. 

For more than five years, South Africa’s been floating listlessly in circles under the nominal control of President Cyril Ramaphosa, a man who a few months back was about to throw in the towel and resign. He was prevailed upon to stay but there’s every sign that his heart’s not in it.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The most urgent tasks facing the president — gargantuan political corruption and the collapse of the national power grid — remain largely unaddressed. It’s clear from Eskom CEO André de Ruyter’s bombshell television interview last week that the two problems are inextricably intertwined.

To address Eskom’s failures, Ramaphosa has to tackle rampant corruption by large and sophisticated networks of criminal gangs. These gangs allegedly involve senior cops and seemingly some figures in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), as well as at least two members of his Cabinet. But were he to act forcefully, it would trigger an ANC mutiny that could split the party and destroy what little public confidence is left in the country’s law enforcement agencies.

It is then understandable that all of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s considerable guile and charm are being applied solely to keeping his government intact. That involves a lot of soothing noises towards the voting fodder, while resolutely avoiding doing anything to rock the ANC boat. 

It’s a precarious situation. And then along comes De Ruyter and causes consternation by plunging his great big bloody harpoon through the hull below the waterline. 

If you haven’t yet watched the hour-long eNCA interview conducted by Annika Larsen — the YouTube version notched up more than 500,000 views in a matter of days — do so. Because of the power of the visual medium, where one can gauge the credibility not only of the argument, but the person making it, it is one of the most important pieces of journalism yet aired on South African television.

That’s not solely because of De Ruyter’s allegations.

The claim by the chairperson of the Eskom board — made when announcing that De Ruyter’s notice period had been summarily scrapped and that he’d been shown the door — that De Ruyter’s allegations came as a surprise is rubbish. Much of what he told the nation on eNCA has, in one form or another, been in the public domain for a considerable while. 

As far back as January 2021, De Ruyter made public his concerns over endemic procurement fraud, collusion with suppliers to exponentially inflate the prices of everyday items and the awarding of contracts to ANC-connected entities. He also repeatedly publicly catalogued instances of sabotage of Eskom’s operations, and the disinterest of the police, the prosecuting authority and magistrates.

But what is new, is also politically explosive. It reveals Ramaphosa’s soft-shoe shuffle around corruption for the sham we’ve long suspected it to be. It also threatens the future flow of looted funds on which depend the lavish lifestyles of many in the political elite, as well as, more prosaically, the ability of the ANC to keep its doors open, pay salaries and fund election campaigns.

De Ruyter deftly and succinctly paints a picture of pervasive criminality uncovered by Eskom’s own exhaustive investigations. It involves at least four criminal syndicates that have infiltrated the coal supply chain in Mpumalanga at a cost to Eskom of about R1 billion per month. 

Although two ministers are implicated in this corruption and De Ruyter reported this to an initially unnamed member of Ramaphosa’s Cabinet — De Ruyter’s political master, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, has since admitted it was he — the only response was a shrug of the shoulders.

On another occasion, when De Ruyter was unsuccessfully arguing for enhanced controls over the US$8.5 billion being contributed by the European Union, the United States and Britain to fund South Africa’s Just Energy Transition (JET) programme, he was told by a minister, “‘In order to pursue the greater good, you have to enable some people to eat a little bit.”.

It is these details by De Ruyter of the lack of ANC commitment to financial vigilance on JET that has truly set the cat among the plump ANC pigeons. 

In response to sustained public anger over state looting, the ANC has become resigned to having at last to curb the most flagrant abuses at state-owned entities. In any case, the bankrupt power utility’s financial carcass has pretty much been picked clean. But JET holds the promise of a luscious new cornucopia to plunder.

De Ruyter’s three years at Eskom were torrid. He was insulted, taunted, undermined, scapegoated and publicly humiliated by ANC apparatchiks. He and his family were threatened. He was poisoned. 

Yet there’s no sign in the interview of bitterness, spite or defensiveness. This is not a political hit job. On the contrary, De Ruyter acknowledges his shortcomings.

He admits to Larsen that has failed, in that load shedding has increased under his watch. To his further credit, he doesn’t then state the obvious: that given the condition of the utility that he inherited, this was always an unrealistic short-term objective.

In 2019, Gordhan defended his new CEO in response to criticism from MPs over the appointment of a white, Afrikaner male who was not an engineer. He described De Ruyter as “a brave, patriotic South African”. This is the same Gordhan who later became so cowed and worn to submission that he shamefully said not a word in defence of De Ruyter when Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe accused the Eskom CEO of being a traitorous saboteur, trying to damage the electoral prospects of the ANC through unnecessary load shedding.

Der Ruyter, too, several times explained in interviews that he took the thankless job, and a 20% pay cut, out of a “sense of patriotism”, a desire “to do my part”. One is repeatedly left with the impression from the interview that these were not idle words. Although there was no over-wrought rhetoric, a love of South Africa and a sense of duty suffuse the damning but understated narrative. 

One of the annoying attempts by the ANC at distraction, in response to the broadcast, has been the threats that unless De Ruyter “proves” his claims, he will be criminally charged for failing in his obligations regarding fiduciary oversight. It is, of course, the police, not De Ruyter, who need to bring charges. As for ANC threats of a defamation action, well good luck with that. 

Whether any of this will be tested in court remains to be seen. Given that the only state looting case to make it onto the roll in five years is this week on the verge of collapse because of a staggeringly incompetent and amateurish case brought by the NPA, that seems unlikely.

The apparent veracity of De Ruyter’s politically damaging account is bolstered by the initially muted reaction from the two people most identified with the supposedly anti-corruption reformist grouping: Gordhan and Ramaphosa.

After more than three days’ silence, Gordhan conceded that, as had been speculated, he was the minister to whom De Ruyter had reported that the tendrils of corruption extended into the Cabinet. But there was nothing he could do, Gordhan argued, about mere “allusions” (sic). 

This is presumably why we are expected to believe that Gordhan never shared De Ruyter’s concerns with the Cabinet nor with Ramaphosa.  However, for a minister to keep his president in the dark about such serious claims is utterly far-fetched in the cover-your-arse world of politics. 

More likely, is one of two things. First, Gordhan did share the information with Ramaphosa and is now protecting the president. Or, two, he didn’t do so because there was absolutely nothing new to share — the Cabinet and the president are already fully aware of which ministers are involved. 

Ramaphosa took even longer than Gordhan to react. Eventually, while sharing the platform with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni during a state reception, he was pinned by an unwelcome question from a reporter.

Ramaphosa’s response was that he was disappointed that De Ruyter had not simply reported “whatever he knows” to the police. This was a “missed opportunity”. 

It places us in “a world of rumours and hearsay. And then we start looking at each other with a great deal of suspicion,” said Ramaphosa, oozing earnest concern.

Since then, on Friday, News24 added to the presidential pain. In an unsourced report it claimed that De Ruyter had in July 2022 briefed not only Gordhan on the allegations, but also Ramaphosa national security advisor, Sydney Mufamadi. He also separately presented his evidence to the controversial National Police Commissioner, General Fannie Masemola, who is himself mired in allegations of corruption.

This is why the eNCA interview has been so devastating and has met with such spittle-flecked fury on the part of the ANC. De Ruyter’s final act of defiance — not going quietly — has kickstarted a self-fuelling reaction that will see many more damaging details of ANC criminality become public.

Most importantly, it leaves the ANC reformists, voters, and international investors and donors, with no easy recourse to self-deception. It’s now blatantly obvious that Ramaphosa’s government may be more urbane than that of his criminal predecessor, but it is no less corrupt. 

While one may choose to accept that reality, following the brave actions of a single honest man there’s no longer any wriggle room to deny it.

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