De Ruyter's travels through ANC-land

Mike Berger reviews the former Eskom CEO's memoir "Truth to Power"

"Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.” Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels

One way and another we have all lived through the De Ruyter saga from the announcement of his unlikely appointment as CEO of Eskom to the clandestine publication of his blockbuster, 'Truth to Power', by Penguin Random House SA. It sold a record 16 444 copies in its first week on the bookshelves, and at least 50 000 within the first month or so of its appearance on the bookshelves mid-May. It's a safe bet that a sizeable proportion of PW readers will have bought or read a copy.

His account rings true to South Africans witness to the moral and intellectual decline of the ANC over the past quarter-century. The narrative is enlivened by a smorgasbord of memorable aphorisms, anecdotes and personal insights into the corporate world. With a bit of intellectual spadework, the book tells us a great deal about De Ruyter himself and the socio-cultural-economic terrain on which we are trying to build a better South Africa.    

De Ruyter is a first-generation South African born of Dutch parents escaping post-WW2 Amsterdam to start a new life in South Africa. He was a product of a frugal upbringing and Dutch independence of thought, strictly raised in a Calvinist Protestant home with its emphasis on hard work, personal modesty, personal and social responsibility and education.

Almost 2 meters tall with an impressive physical persona, intelligence, an abundance of confidence and people skills, and an apparently unlimited capacity for hard work he was destined for leadership, first as a senior executive in Sasol followed by a rollercoaster stint as CEO of Nampak.

Although not in the public eye, the politically conscious, liberal-leaning De Ruyter was a player in ANC- corporate initiatives to 'resuscitate South Africa's moribund economy'. These activities brought him to the attention of high-level ANC politicians, bureaucrats and corporate executives with ties to the ruling party. He was no innocent abroad and the early chapters detail his cautious and hesitant steps towards throwing his hat into the Eskom ring.

Eskom, like other SOE's, already had a poisonous reputation for political interference, incompetence and pervasive financial malfeasance. There was no serious strategic planning, minimal maintenance and a constant turn-over of one CEO after another in ad hoc responses to public scandals and factional squabbling - to the point of bringing one incumbent to the threshold of a near-fatal burnout.

The job of Eskom CEO was, as emphasized by De Ruyter himself, somewhere between a poisoned chalice and the ultimate corporate hard place. Besides his own reputation and future prospects there was his family to consider. In retrospect his decision seems foreordained. How could a man of De Ruyter's abilities, ambition and pro-social orientation reject the chance for glory?

So in response to the call of destiny he applied for the position of Eskom CEO and was officially appointed on 12 Dec 2019, offered his resignation on 12 Dec 2022, suffered a near-fatal alleged poisoning the next day and resigned with immediate effect on 22 Feb 2023. His book appeared on the bookshelves a mere 3 months later.

The meat of De Ruyter's book recounts his struggles in the byzantine labyrinth of a vast sprawling empire occupied by a foreign, hostile culture. It is Gulliver's Travels updated, and transported out of 18th century Britain deep into the heart of 21st century Africa - a world beyond even Jonathan Swift's fertile imagination and yet immediately recognisable as human, and thus familiar.

It is impossible in a relatively brief review to do justice to the wealth of human and narrative detail and perceptive insights in De Ruyter's book. One must assume that at, the very least, he had kept detailed records of events and encounters throughout his hectic years as CEO. It's likely that he kept a journal as well, so it's reasonable to assume a considerable degree of foresight and was operative right from the beginning of his tenure.

The basic outlines of his 3 year reign as CEO are already known from his interviews with Annika Larsen on eNCA and many interviews; see here for instance. It's a story of seemingly endless encounters with negligence, vandalism, incomprehension, disinterest, passive and active resistance, endemic corruption, outright criminality, attempted murder and targeted sabotage. The basic outline is all too recognisable to South Africans; nevertheless, the sheer scale and brazenness still has the capacity to shock.

It's difficult to get a (post?)-modern Western mind around the reality that leading ANC-aligned politicians, in cahoots with professional criminals and ordinary South Africans, will systematically sabotage an absolutely key component of their own society on which they and their children depend for sustenance. In order to do so requires an active effort of will to transcend the cultural conditioning of one's own socialisation and perhaps personal inclinations.

Understanding does not entail either agreement or even forgiveness but perspective on the human condition and the tasks before us. De Ruyter does not aim for such philosophic depth. His sensibilities are those of a post-enlightenment, well-intentioned Western technophile, bewildered and deeply frustrated by the incomprehensible and reprehensible behaviour of his fellow humans. Many of his readers will share these feelings.

The full costs of the prolonged Eskom meltdown in lost opportunities, in shortened and impoverished lives, in the destruction of the social fabric and the reputational damage to the South African international image are almost incalculable. In hard financial terms, South African taxpayers have injected more than R500 billion in rescue efforts and the direct loss to corruption was in the region of R1 billion monthly.

Yet as this is being written towards the tail-end of June 2023 the loadshedding schedule, at least in Cape Town, has improved considerably from around 10 hours a day to at most 2 hours. Many days pass without blackouts and, given an unusually rainy and chilly Cape winter, that feels like a blessing instead of normality. Undoubtedly a significant proportion of the improvement can be directly and indirectly attributed to De Ruyter's exposure of malfeasance as well as the operational reforms and strategic planning he initiated.

If you're looking for a comprehensive and engrossing account of the political landscape of ANC-led South Africa, De Ruyter's book is an essential read. What you will not get is an attempt to get to grips with the culture from whence such behaviour has emerged and its implications for our future. De Ruyter's experiences are an essential grounding for understanding the options open to South Africa in assuring its future and in subsequent posts I hope to explore the backstory to his account.

Mike Berger