De Ruyter tells his shocking inside story of Eskom

Review: Vivien Horler

Truth to Power – My three years inside Eskom, by André de Ruyter (Penguin Books)

In January 2020, on one of André de Ruyter’s first days at Megawatt Park as Eskom CEO, he looked out of his office window and spotted the SA flag flying upside down.

He was outraged – he believes disrespect for the flag means disrespect for the country – and summoned security officials to have it hung properly.

Later, after the depths of Eskom’s woes became apparent to him, he learnt flying a flag upside-down is universally recognised as a sign of distress.

He says wryly: “Perhaps the two officials had not been so mistaken after all.”

Not since reading Jacques Pauw’s eye-widening The President’s Keepers, about the corruption of the Zuma years, have I come across such a jaw-dropping book. If you’re trying to decide whether or not to emigrate, this might be the tipping point.

He knew, when appointed (after a reported 28 people, mainly black, turned the job down) that it wasn’t going to be easy.

After a career in the private sector he was unprepared for “the raft of absurd and complicated regulations one had to navigate to complete even the simplest of purchases”.

He was also unprepared for the extent to which the parastatal’s skills had been eroded. With the loss of a range of institutional knowledge, bright young engineers had no one to show them how things should be done.

And he had misjudged the extent of equipment neglect.

There was also the politics of it all, balancing the often competing demands of the Presidency, Minerals and Energy, the National Treasury, Public Enterprises, Environment, and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

Although he does not use this phrase, what he found when he arrived was nothing short of a shit show.

The son of Dutch immigrants, De Ruyter worked for years at Sasol before going on to Nampak and later Eskom. When he was first appointed, many naysayers wondered what the boss of a packaging company knew about managing a fleet of power stations.

He is not an engineer, which is why he turned down an earlier Eskom offer to appoint him as chief operations officer – that job went to Jan Oberholzer – but he understood management, he understood operations using boilers, and he understood coal. He was not in any sense a rookie.

There are so many points to highlight in Truth to Power, that it’s hard to know where to start.

But here are a few.

  • With reference to red tape, he says he had to override a National Treasury instruction preventing power station managers from handing out boerie rolls and Cokes to celebrate small achievements at plants – this was regarded as fruitless and wasteful expenditure.
  • There was a suggestion by a member of the new board, appointed in late September 2022, that the board would have to agree before any loadshedding could be introduced. De Ruyter was incredulous. He told the board decisions were made by the system operator to protect the grid from a blackout. He said: “If the phone rings at two in the morning, there is no time for a board meeting; we need to decide then and there.” The idea was swiftly kicked into touch, but the fact it was up for discussion at all was worrying.
  • Dr Wale Aboyade of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, told De Ruyter that one of the reasons Eskom management was struggling to convey its message to the government was that De Ruyter – with the subtext of his race – was the messenger. Aboyade said: “You should be aware that it is not so much about what you say but about who says it.”

An episode is enough to give an idea of the corruption Eskom management  faced. One day in April 2020 De Ruyter discovered Tutuka, one of 15 coal-fired plants, was burning 43% of all the fuel oil Eskom bought.

Fuel oil is used to get the coal in the boilers burning again after an outage – it’s like using firelighters on a braai.

For months De Ruyter could not figure out what was going on, but things became clearer when a thoroughly experienced station manager was appointed at Tutuka.

In the small hours one night two units tripped and the manager, Sello Mametja, drove to the plant, as managers are obliged to do if more than one unit trips, even if it is 2am.

At the station he was told fuel oil levels were low, even though Tutuka had had 36 deliveries in the past 24 hours. As Mametja arrived he noticed a tanker was unloading, but after the tanker had left the level of oil in the plant’s tanks had hardly moved.

This seemed strange. So, oblivious to the danger they were potentially facing from an organised crime syndicate, Memetja and a security official went after the tanker and flagged it down.

The driver and his mate had an astonishing story. Neither that truck nor any of the others that day had actually delivered any fuel oil. The syndicate’s ploy was “round-tripping” – the tankers would drive over the weighbridge, but not offload their cargo. They would then leave, drive around for a while and come back later, to repeat the process.

And the suppliers would be paid for the fuel that was never delivered. Mametja had saved Eskom R1.2 billion a year.

It was after this incident that Mametja was issued with bodyguards and a bulletproof vest. It emerges Tutuka needed only six deliveries of fuel oil a day, but the previous management had signed a contract for 36.

And that’s what happened at just one power station.

After De Ruyter was hustled out, following his bombshell interview with eNCA, a new electricity minister was introduced to the complex mix of government departments with a say over Eskom. De Ruyter doesn’t think this will solve the crisis – he believes the most useful thing the government can do is get out of the way of the people with a clear and workable plan.

There is a lot more in this remarkable and sobering book, much of it depressing and some of it hopeful. Truth to Power really is worth reading.

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