Sunday Times

If De Ruyter was black he would’ve been on his way out

It’s said demand for power in 2020 was less than what it was in 2010. Yet De Ruyter’s lights keep tripping


So, Eskom CEO André de Ruyter hasn’t a clue how to eliminate load-shedding using resources already at his disposal. Why, then, is he still CEO? Not long ago, De Ruyter told the nation, less than two months into his job, that we have only 18 more months to endure loadsheddi­ng. A month later, Covid-19 struck and the government imposed lockdown. This put screeching brakes on the economy, drasticall­y reducing electricit­y demand. An overeager De Ruyter further told the nation: “We’ve taken down double the amount of megawatts in order to do short-term maintenanc­e and I think we will emerge from this lockdown a stronger and more reliable power utility.” And so a nation almost on its knees hoped this messianic new broom at Eskom would end loadsheddi­ng sooner than previously announced.

And then a year later, De Ruyter’s true colours started emerging: Well, actually, no, he said. This load-shedding will be with you for the next five years!

De Ruyter is not only failing to stop load-shedding, he’s also speaking with a forked tongue about when we should expect the nightmare to end. It was he who said 18 months, then said the time could be shortened thanks to the coronaviru­s — and now he’s talking five years. What changed for the worse? Was this forecastin­g gone horribly wrong? What? Is this a CEO so hopelessly clueless that the words — his 18-months promise — just escaped his mouth before being properly processed, and he’s now trying, and doing badly at that, to self-correct?

Whatever. Just do your job, De Ruyter. Keep the lights on. Is that too much to ask, if you’re the right man for the job?

Even if we sympathise­d and said his is the toughest job and he needs support, he has the responsibi­lity to make it easy for the nation to support him. His mixed messages and his cluelessne­ss about when to end loadsheddi­ng militate against this support. It is either he has the solution to the country’s biggest headache, or he is the nation’s headache himself.

How do we now trust that when he says five years, it actually means five years? Should we even bother? Or should we just throw in the towel and say De Ruyter and his government ilk never get anything right, anyway? If they can’t sort out simple potholes or pick up garbage, why do we expect engineerin­g solutions from them?

Well, perhaps, let’s start at the beginning to temper our expectatio­ns.

De Ruyter’s appointmen­t in late November 2019 elicited mixed reactions, with some relieved that Eskom would finally have stability and direction following the disastrous end of Jabu Mabuza’s reign as chair-cumCEO. Others, though, were concerned that De Ruyter was a plain Jack at Nampak and, as a consequenc­e, less should be expected from him. Hilton Tarrant of Moneyweb said at the time: “De Ruyter was an underwhelm­ing choice to lead the then-R29bn Nampak in 2014. Today, Nampak’s market value is R5bn.” Says a lot about where we are now with load-shedding! And, of course, the very fact of De Ruyter being white and male meant that his appointmen­t would be rejected in some quarters as running against transforma­tion imperative­s.

But a citizenry weary of, and almost defeated by, loadsheddi­ng was more than willing to give De Ruyter a fair chance if he would get rid of the power cuts, this bane of our existence. But no sooner was he ensconced in the CEO’s chair than the tyranny of the soul-crushing loadsheddi­ng worsened.

As if playing a sickly joke on us, President Cyril Ramaphosa dedicated his Monday newsletter to telling us our load-shedding misery was like the birth pangs of something great that would come out of Eskom. Well, not his words, but that’s what he meant. If Ramaphosa’s letter is looked at closely, the main gain he mentions is progress about long overdue independen­t power producers, which the department of minerals & energy has been working on. Yeah, great.

But what great ideas and/or progress has De Ruyter brought on board to help eliminate our perennial power woes? What has been achieved with him over a year at the helm of our country’s most important state-owned company?

If you listen to Mdu Mlaba, president of the National Society of Black Engineers, demand for power in 2020 at 34.2GW was less than what it was in 2010, at 36.7GW. Yet De Ruyter’s lights keep tripping. So, again, I ask: what has this bright spark from Nampak done at Eskom?

Eskom’s debt is about half a trillion rands. The South African Revenue Service generates about R1.3-trillion a year from individual­s and corporatio­ns. That’s how deep in trouble Eskom was before De Ruyter’s arrival — and how it remains today. There is no blueprint for how it is going to get out of this mess.

Yet, if you listen to suspended Eskom executive Solly Tshitangan­o, De Ruyter has been running around fighting black suppliers. This is the same De Ruyter who courted controvers­y in his first week by submitting the names of possible suppliers to Eskom’s supply chain team. Again, if you look at South32 mine, which the Sunday Times reported on two weeks ago, De Ruyter wants to defy the National Treasury to pay the mine even more. He says it’s either this or we get load-shedding. Funny joke!

De Ruyter is sure to keep Eskom on its destructiv­e path. Economics textbooks must be rewritten to show that even monopolies can run themselves so deep into debt that they remain perpetual loss makers.

The thing is, if De Ruyter was black he would have been declared a disaster and probably asked to leave long ago. The public campaign would be deafening. The idea of a white male failure is hard to fathom. But his race aside, De Ruyter seems at sea at Eskom. He’s not going to solve our major headache. Not in 18 months. Not in five years. Perhaps not in 10 years. Yes, I am being flippant, I know. But wouldn’t you be if your CEO relied more on guesswork than engineerin­g?

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