What was De Ruyter thinking?

Jeremy Gordin writes on the outgoing Eskom CEO's parting shot against the ANC

It’s a hot, somewhat humid day in Porky Parkview, Johannesburg, and the UV is allegedly “extreme.” But the sun is shining (obviously) and at least we’re not in Nablus, Hatay, Kyiv or Oslo [i]. So perhaps we should just count our blessings ou pêllie, count them one by one...”[ii]

I might add that “the nightingales are [not] sobbing in the orchards of our mothers” [iii]. Instead, what I can hear, courtesy of the suburb’s various diesel-powered generators, is the new SA national anthem, performed simultaneously in all 11 official languages.

Now, some readers might believe me if I were to claim that I’m an expert on Shakespeare’s first folio or the syntax of Das Kapital. But if I were to suggest that I could be referred to as the “Father [or even the Uncle] of modern business management,” [iv] this claim might well be met with a snigger.

And yet, truth being stranger than fiction, I have – during the many jobs I have ‘done’ during my long, happy life – been near enough to some of Seffrica’s very senior captains of management – not close enough, mind you, to be involved in the spawning of their intellectual/strategic progeny ­– but sufficiently contiguous to have been able to name the scent (or absence) of the day’s deodorant.

This having been the case[v], I thought I might offer some thoughts on the … well, not “ethics” exactly, but let’s call it “best practice” in the field of corporate management and suchlike.

The idea came to me when an excellent acquaintance of mine [vi], whom I’ll call Dr D, remarked to me this morning that ‘Surely there was an easier way for André de Ruyter, ex-CEO of Eskom, to get out of working his remaining weeks at Eskom than giving that interview to e.tv’s Annika Larsen?’ [vii] [broadcast on Tuesday night, and, if I may believe “the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes,” again on Wednesday night].

I’d best explain. Eskom, as you might know, is what’s quaintly known as a crumbling parastatal or beleaguered power utility. Owned by the government, it’s supposed to generate, transmit and distribute electricity to industrial, mining, commercial, agricultural, and residential customers and redistributors.

The problem though, the hippopotamus in the room [viii], is that Eskom doesn’t do any of the foregoing with much success; so much so that at the moment we have so-called loadshedding level six, i.e., most areas of the country are without electricity for between nine-and-a-half and 11-and-a-half hours a day. (There’re allegedly 24 hours in a day – I mention this for those, like me, who are sometimes baffled by both modern physics and Eskom’s schedule.) 

De Ruyter, as you might also know, resigned from his post at Eskom in December but, apparently being a gentleman and a scholar, opted or agreed to remain there until 31 March – presumably to assist while he was being replaced. Why De Ruyter quit (in December) is, according to him, because he was (verbally) attacked by minister of mineral resources and energy Gwede “the tiger” Mantashe, who accused De Ruyter of agitating “to overthrow the state” [by not being able to fix Eskom, presumably]. Mantashe also mentioned that De Ruyter was unqualified for the job. 

When this happened, De Ruyter was not publicly defended by the president of the Republic Cyril Ramaphosa, minister of public enterprises (and minister responsible for Eskom) Pravin Gordhan, and not by Mpho Makwana, appointed chairperson of the Eskom board on September 30. Why these eminent office-bearers did not shield De Ruyter from the ire of the Tiger, we (or I) don’t know. But we should keep this in mind – it is one of the “anomalies” of the whole sad saga, and one day we might have reason to discuss it again.

Additionally, the day after De Ruyter resigned, he was allegedly poisoned; a mixture of cyanide and rat poison was put in his coffee, or around the top edge of his personalised mug, at Eskom headquarters. I write “allegedly” because no one has yet been charged. But given what De Ruyter said about the attempted poisoning in the interview – which we are about to reach – it doesn’t sound like a figment of his imagination.

Then earlier this week, De Ruyter was interviewed by Ms Larsen of e.tv which, notwithstanding loadshedding level six, I was lucky enough to see last night. During the interview, De Ruyter said many things. But let me start with what (I think) are the most important points and soldier on from there.

When, during a meeting, “we [De Ruyter and his execs?] pointed out that there was one particular high-level politician” involved in serious corruption, “the minister in question [Gordhan?] looked at [another] senior official and said, ‘I guess it was inevitable that it would come out anyway’. Which suggests [explained De Ruyter to Larsen] that this wasn’t news.” Larsen asked De Ruyter if the “senior politician” was a member of the Cabinet, but De Ruyter declined to answer, saying he did not “want to go there”.

At another point in the interview, De Ruyter said, “I shared the information [about corruption] with a minister, I shouldn’t mention names, and with senior advisers to the president [my emphasis] … I certainly gave the message through, which by the way I’m obliged by law to do.”

Larsen also asked De Ruyter whether Eskom had become a “feeding trough” for the ANC, to which De Ruyter responded: “I would say the evidence suggests that it is.”

“I expressed [De Ruyter added] my concern to a senior government minister about attempts, in my view, to water down governance in relation to the $8.5 billion that, by and large through Eskom, we got at COP26. And the response was, essentially, you have to be pragmatic, that in order to achieve the greater good, you have to enable some [of the other people around] to eat [sic] a little bit. So, yes, it [corruption] is entrenched,” De Ruyter said.

De Ruyter also referred to the ANC’s involvement, through Chancellor House, in Eskom’s deal with Hitachi Power Africa to construct boilers and turbines at Kusile and Medupi power stations, which have been plagued by delays and grand corruption. And he noted that the dept. of public enterprises had played an “interventionist” role at the power utility and had been “micromanaging” it.

De Ruyter also had some rather pertinent comments about contractual negotiations he’d attended with representatives of the Karpowership company. They didn’t sound like the most lekker people he’d ever come across (I speak in legal terms, of course).

De Ruyter continued: “There’s a narrative that the state should control everything. Unfortunately, the ghosts of Marx and Lenin still haunt the halls of Luthuli House. People are still firmly committed to a 1980s style ideology. They still address each other as comrade, which is frankly embarrassing. They use words like ‘lumpen proletariat’, which is ridiculous because these things were last said in 1980s East Germany,” he said.

Following this interview, a visibly annoyed Gordhan told MPs on Wednesday that De Ruyter’s statements should be investigated by Eskom’s board and that they should report back to him with their findings, and he slammed De Ruyter for “meddling” in politics instead of focusing on ending load-shedding.

“What’s important is that CEOs of any entity, including Eskom, should not be involved in open political debates or assertions, and where they have political views, that is their private business and they are welcome to express those views privately,” said Gordhan.

In other words, if I understand Gordhan correctly, the Eskom disaster has nothing to do with politics nor, for that matter, did the alleged attempt to poison De Ruyter. I’d have thought that someone of Gordhan’s alleged political sophistication and experience would understand that everything, especially in Seffrica, is political. Oh well, the minister of public enterprises is entitled to live in any kind of bubble he chooses, just as I am.

And then, as we also all know, yesterday De Ruyter was told he could leave the building and not come back. Apparently, the folks on the board and Eskom’s shareholders (the ANC government) didn’t fancy what De Ruyter had had to say on TV.

This brings me back to Dr D’s management-type question – as well as a few others. I can’t promise my responses will be black and white ones, but I’ll do my best. Could De Ruyter have found an easier way not to have work out those weeks until March?

In my experience, it’s a real pain in the proverbial, when you know you have to go or are going, to have to hang about pretending to care. Still, one does want to be as gracious as possible, especially if your final salary hasn’t yet been paid or the folks in Human Resources are still fiddling with your pension papers.

But, in the elegant words of Stephen Mulholland, my editor at the Financial Mail, “if you have ‘f--k you money,’ you can do what you like”. And I suspect that De Ruyter does have such money. Furthermore, it seems to me that far too many “senior politicians” and suchlike don’t realize that (ironically) not everything is about money.

Being publicly demeaned while you have to keep smiling and being gracious – not to mention an attempt being made on your life – is not to everyone’s taste. And De Ruyter didn’t so much want to cut his time at Eskom shorter; he wanted to stop bottling up things and to tell the “truth”. He’d had enough of the folderol.

When you become a whistle blower, even after the fact, should you publicly divulge everything? Well, if you can, yes. Problem is that if you don’t have chapter and verse under lock and key, or encrypted somewhere, you do need to be a little circumspect about publicly naming names. One also doesn’t want to walk around for the rest of your life with your personal firearm permanently locked and loaded.

Talking of which, the erstwhile commander of Vlakplaas, Eugene de Kock [ix], pretty much divulged everything and named names. But he did so in a court of law and in front of the TRC and, though he had no f--k you money, he had plenty of f--k you attitude. Nonetheless he once told me that one of the stupidest things he ever did (in terms of protecting himself) was to destroy a trommel full of documents. We trust De Ruyter hasn’t or won’t do the same.

Should you divulge all kinds of information, or should you maybe edit a little, focussing on the important stuff? A little editing never does any harm, I always think. For example, why was De Ruyter so exercised by the ANC penchant for calling each other “comrade” and kowtowing to the ghosts of Marx and Lenin?

Jeez, half of my friends (such as I have) still talk about Marx and Lenin. And does De Ruyter realise how insulting he’s being to the memories of those two men? Doesn’t he know that de facto ANC ideology and practice has about as much resemblance to the ideologies of those two gents as I do to Robert Redford?

I mean, De Ruyter sounds (with respect) as anguished as some Politicsweb readers. André, don’t worry about the comrades, Marx, or Lenin. They’re long gone, maibru. I’d bet they’re not even discussed in the Kremlin any more. What do you expect ANC members to talk about? They’re not going to discuss their bank accounts in Dubai or Switzerland.

Let’s take a musical break for a moment. Look for John Mellencamp Cougar’s 1983 hit “Pink Houses”. Got it on your iPhone or somewhere else? Okay, let’s listen together to the chorus, replacing “America” with “SoufEfrika”.

“Oh, but ain’t that SoufEfrika for you and me? / Ain’t that SoufEfrika somethin’ to see, baby?/ Ain’t that SoufEfrika home of the free, yeah? ...”

Follow my drift? Ain’t that the ANC? Ain’t that SoufEfrika somethin’ to see, baby? It’s what they do; it’s what they talk about. Ain’t that what SoufEfrika’s turned into for you and me?

Anyway, at least we can end this article on a positive note.

After the interview, after unceremoniously kicking De Ruyter out of Megawatt Park, after Gordhan’s words of anger, the ANC’s new secretary-general Fikile Mbalula, known affectionately as Mr Fixfokkol, has spoken out today: “That man – he must prove what he said about us… We will challenge him for saying that our party is corrupt and failing to prove how.”

Now, who would have thought that an erstwhile member of the Lumpenproletariat could throw down the gauntlet so elegantly?


[i] Where it’s friggin’ freezin’.

[ii] Toe Suiderkruis toe, Adam Small, 1971.

[iii] “Song of the Master and Boatswain,” The Sea and the Mirror, WH Auden, 1944.

[iv] Saw this quote on the back of a book written by Peter Drucker, for sale at a second-hand bookshop. Sic transit gloria mundi.

[v] I’m not going to list the relevant parts of my CV, that would be embarrassing, but anyone interested can write to the editor.

[vi] She’s in fact a very good friend of a very good friend – and while some people have been awarded with a CBE (commander of the order of the British empire), Dr D holds a very rare CGWVECIF (companion to Gordin when very expensive cognac is flowing).

[vii] This was meant to be a quip, by the way, even if it was received by me as food for serious thought.

[viii] Did you know that Ludwig Wittgenstein once allegedly talked Bertrand Russell into believing that there was a hippopotamus in the room, even though there apparently wasn’t?

[ix] Cf. A Long Night’s Damage: Working for the Apartheid State by Eugene de Kock, as told to Jeremy Gordin. Contra Press, Johannesburg, 1998.