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.