Eskom’s Khulu Phasiwe on leav­ing the state en­tity

Eskom’s Khulu Phasiwe tells DRUM why he left the power util­ity and what he’s go­ing to do now that he’s no longer the voice of the state en­tity


IT’S a job no one would envy. As Eskom’s na­tional spokespers­on he’s been fir­ing on all cylin­ders try­ing to ac­count for the myr­iad prob­lems the em­bat­tled power util­ity faces. From al­le­ga­tions of state cap­ture to rolling black­outs and the com­pany be­ing up to its eye­balls in debt, Khulu Phasiwe has had to keep track of it all. The past five years were his dark­est days: his phone rang off the hook with dead­line-driven jour­nal­ists seek­ing com­ment on the lat­est scan­dal to rock the state en­tity. Of­ten, he’d be glued to his phone from sun­rise to long af­ter sun­set, leav­ing lit­tle time for any­thing else. Week­ends were just work­ing days for him. But now it’s all a thing of the past. “It was too much for one per­son to han­dle,” says Khulu, who an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion from Eskom last month. Yet leav­ing the be­lea­guered com­pany wasn’t a de­ci­sion he took lightly, he tells DRUM. He’d spent 10 years at Eskom but re­cently he’d been plagued by low en­ergy lev­els and headaches, and his body was rid­dled with aches and pains. At night he tossed and turned in bed, stressed with in­som­nia and in late March – just af­ter Eskom an­nounced they would stop stage 4 load­shed­ding – he went to his GP.

Khulu (40) was on the verge of burn­ing out and his doc­tor gave him two op­tions: take a sab­bat­i­cal from his po­si­tion at Eskom or re­sign, recharge and start afresh. “Even if I was to take a long break from Eskom, chances are I’d come back to the same prob­lems,” he says.

“As a pro­fes­sional you want to do the best you can, but you also don’t want to

die on the job.” The past five years have been par­tic­u­larly tax­ing on him and his fam­ily. Khulu has been mar­ried to wife Dudu (40) for 15 years. The cou­ple are par­ents to Unathi (13) and Mh­leli (9).

“My son was four when I was ap­pointed,” Khulu says.

“The past five years of his life I was never there, even though I was there. When I was at home my wife would be help­ing with the chil­dren’s home­work be­cause I’d still be work­ing, do­ing in­ter­views, late into the evening.

“Even when I was driv­ing the kids to school, I’d be field­ing calls from me­dia and I didn’t even have time to say good­bye,” he says sadly.

“But now I’m putting my­self first.”

HE’S come a long way with Eskom. Khulu had his first en­counter with the en­ergy provider in high school when he joined a pro­gramme that en­cour­aged school chil­dren to fo­cus on sci­ence-based sub­jects in the hopes of re­cruit­ing them in the fu­ture.

Khulu, who was nick­named “Ob­vi­ous” by his peers at Se­hunelo Sec­ondary School be­cause he was the top stu­dent in his class from Stan­dard 1 un­til Stan­dard 6 (Grades 3 to 8), loved maths and sci­ence.

Yet he also had a flair for lan­guages. He was born in Bloem­fontein, but spent most of his child­hood be­tween Mat­sheng vil­lage in the North West and Soweto, where he spent school hol­i­days.

It was in the vil­lage he har­nessed his com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. Khulu, who spoke isiZulu, lived around peo­ple from dif­fer­ent cul­tures and had to learn to speak to them in a lan­guage they could un­der

stand. Now he’s flu­ent in six of the coun­try’s 11 lan­guages, in­clud­ing Se­pedi, Tswana, Se­sotho and isiXhosa.

It’s this love for lan­guages that won over his early in­ter­est in sci­ence when he en­rolled for a BA at Wits Univer­sity in 1997.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing he worked as a jour­nal­ist at Busi­ness Day news­pa­per. Khulu was em­ployed in the commercial bank division at FNB when he was head­hunted by Eskom to join the com­pany’s newly formed me­dia desk in 2007.

“I re­fused be­cause I saw there were al­ready prob­lems in Cape Town. The first signs of trou­ble started when the city re­leased load­shed­ding sched­ules,” he re­calls.

But the com­pany kept pes­ter­ing him. Six months later, then spokespers­on Fani Zulu called and asked him to re­con­sider. “I agreed and joined them in June 2008.”

Cor­po­rate life, he found, was not for him. “I wanted a job that was more like a news­room where ev­ery day is dif­fer­ent.”

Khulu got more than he bar­gained for. “Al­most ev­ery day there was some­thing new com­ing out, some­times two or even three sto­ries on the same day,” he says.

Hav­ing started as a se­nior com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­viser on Eskom’s me­dia desk, Khulu was ap­pointed deputy spokespers­on in 2010. His in­ter­est in sci­ence helped him de­code all the tech­ni­cal de­tails in a clear and calm man­ner, and in 2014 he was ap­pointed na­tional spokespers­on. Since then he’s had to cast light on one pub­lic dis­as­ter to the next, from the Gupta leaks to al­le­ga­tions of cor­rupt con­tracts.

‘You also don’t want to die on the job’

KHULU found him­self in the fir­ing line last year. Anoj Singh told an in­quiry he didn’t mis­lead any­one about the power util­ity’s cor­rupt re­la­tion­ship with Trile dis­graced former Eskom CFO claimed me­dia re­leases on the mat­ter were sent with­out his knowl­edge but speak­ing on 702 and

CapeTalk, Khulu said he only acted on the in­struc­tion of ex­ec­u­tives at the paras­tatal.

He said Singh told him at the time to tell re­porters there was no re­la­tion­ship with Tril­lian. “Anoj Singh, Mat­shela Koko and Suzanne Daniels were ba­si­cally the peo­ple that were deal­ing with this mat­ter. In other words, when­ever we re­sponded to the me­dia we would get a po­si­tion state­ment from them.” It was the last straw for Khulu. “In Au­gust I wrote a let­ter to my line man­ager, CEO Phaka­mani Hadebe, and the head of HR ask­ing to leave be­cause it was just too much,” he re­veals.

Phaka­mani, who had only just started the job, asked Khulu to stay to en­sure sta­bil­ity at the com­pany. But by March, he’d made up his mind.

“We hadn’t had load­shed­ding in three weeks. With the rel­a­tive peace and sta­bil­ity, it was time for me to leave.” Eskom’s deputy spokespers­on Dikatso Mothae has stepped in un­til man­age­ment de­cides who will re­place Khulu but he’s happy to be tak­ing a break from the rat race.

“Dur­ing those hec­tic days I wasn’t able to play with my kids and help them with home­work, but now I’m go­ing to catch up and do ev­ery­thing they need,” Khulu says.

He’s look­ing for­ward to watch­ing more soccer games with Mh­leli, who’s an avid Kaizer Chiefs fan. Along with watch­ing Liver­pool games on TV, the two try to go to lo­cal stadiums as of­ten as pos­si­ble to sup­port Khulu’s favourite team, Bloem­fontein Celtic. His sab­bat­i­cal will also al­low him to feed his love of speed. The self-pro­claimed petrol­head loves to go to Swartkop­pies in Pre­to­ria to watch mo­tor rac­ing.

“I want to go there and ex­pe­ri­ence it with my son.” The de­voted dad hasn’ t given much thought to what he’ll do af­ter his two-month break.

“I’ll as­sess my emo­tional state be­fore de­cid­ing what to do next,” he says.

For now, he’s al­ready feel­ing lighter.

LEFT: Khulu has re­signed from his po­si­tion as Eskom’s spokes­per­son. He says work stress was im­pact­ing on his health and his fam­ily. Dur­ing his time at the power util­ity (RIGHT), Khulu had a pub­lic spat with former Eskom CFO Anoj Singh (FAR RIGHT).

The power util­ity’s deputy spokes­per­son, Dikatso Mothae, has stepped in while it searches for a per­ma­nent re­place­ment.

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