A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash.

The South African media has recently been abuzz, yet again, with talk of Andre de Ruyter, the former CEO of embattled power utility Eskom, who, until his recent departure, oversaw the parastatal for three years. Notoriously, Eskom is in what seems to be a state of “permacrisis.” Out-of-date technology, ineffectual maintenance, endemic corruption, and criminal inefficiency have combined to the point that the country is crippled by waves of so-called loadshedding—otherwise known as planned power cuts—designed to forestall total grid collapse.

Amid the national panic and governmental inertia about the failures of Eskom, de Ruyter has emerged as a divisive figure, with some believing he should take responsibility for what happened under his watch and others insisting he was scuppered by shadowy figures within the ruling African National Congress. His newly released tell-all book, Truth to Power: My Three Years at Eskom, has made a series of scathing accusations that have once again pushed him to the top of the news cycle.

But de Ruyter’s attempts at crafting a narrative about his tenure at Eskom began before the book was released. Having announced his resignation in December 2022, and then survived an alleged poisoning attempt, in February this year de Ruyter gave a dramatic exit interview to veteran journalist Annika Larsen on eNCA (South Africa’s most watched 24-hour news channel). The interview is fascinating for what it reveals about how de Ruyter used the interview, and Larsen’s failure to ask critical questions, to influence public opinion and bolster his personal brand. The interview also exhibits a set of assumptions about the morality and competence of white men that remains infuriatingly common in public discourse, where tussles over race and meaning continue. South Africa’s power crisis is also, of course, a crisis of power.

In the best traditions of media spin, de Ruyter uses the interview to “set the record straight,” emphasizing the image that he wants to associate with his name and reputation. Unsurprisingly, he positions himself as the good guy in a bad situation, the one non-rotten apple in the barrel. He uses several metaphors to drive home this message, in language pulled straight from popular TV serials:

  • De Ruyter as doctor, the skilled surgeon trying to operate on the “metastasizing tumor” of corruption, which keeps growing faster than he can cut it out or treat it.
  • De Ruyter as plumber, the knowledgeable artisan trying to fix the leaking taps, to “turn off the spigots” that are pouring public money into private pockets.
  • De Ruyter as honest cop, the lone actor trying to bring down the organized crime network, investigating abuses of power with informants in every corner, “making arrests” and doing a “perp walk.”

His chosen metaphors reveal de Ruyter as a hardworking, admirable, ordinary man. This self-presentation rests also on ideas about the altruistic and honest nature of Afrikaner masculinity: the farmers who just want to feed the nation, the engineers whose only desire is to keep the railways running, understandings of Afrikaans history that ignore the violent exclusions of both farms and trains. Larsen, meanwhile, made a point of reminding viewers that de Ruyter took on the Eskom job out of a sense of public duty, in keeping with his self-branding as trustworthy and straightforward.

Here, de Ruyter is doing a kind of universe-jumping, offering us images of himself in multiple parallel vocations and life positions. But de Ruyter the plumber, de Ruyter the cop and de Ruyter the doctor are also always de Ruyter the CEO, who earned more than R7 million (about 350,000 USD) annually during his time at the helm of a failing public enterprise, and who previously held well-paid CEO positions at other large companies.

De Ruyter skilfully uses the interview to entrench the message that he is a good man, or more specifically a good white man, while also being an abused and vulnerable victim who deserves special protection. Much of his claim of moral uprightness is embedded in ideas about money, consumption, and luxury. De Ruyter, the interview makes clear, is not an obscene conspicuous consumer, like others he mentions who wash their hands in whiskey “because they can,” and who finagle the system so that they can drive their McLarens through the potholed streets of eMalahleni (a town formerly known as Witbank, in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province). He is sensible and frugal, as signaled by his chinos, blue shirt and veldskoen (leather shoes similar to desert boots). An obvious symbolic departure from the CEO uniform of suit, tie, pressed shirts and polished shoes, this new appearance is designed to suggest an ethical orientation of restraint and good sense, as well as taste, so often used to mask class judgments.

While there is of course an obvious and important link between consumption and corruption, de Ruyter’s particular employment of these tropes echoes a common racialization of consumption, in which luxury enjoyed by black people is perceived as outrageous, excessive, inappropriate, and fundamentally immoral. De Ruyter does not deliver this critique directly, but foregrounds the horrors of brazen corruption, with excessive consumption provided as evidence. What is important here is not just the enormous problem of corruption at Eskom, but also the fact that black people enjoying luxury lifestyles is represented as inherently immoral, in contrast to the moderation and sense of white men like de Ruyter, who, we must assume, enjoy their wealth in socially acceptable ways. (Let us briefly recall that R7 million annual salary.)

De Ruyter places the entire responsibility for the Eskom disaster onto the (implied black) corruption that ruins everything. He emphasizes how he led investigations and handed information over to the police, who did nothing. State security also did nothing. Indeed, according to the narrative presented, everyone was complicit except for de Ruyter, who alone was trying to save the country from acts of treason. He positions himself as an honest and altruistic servant of the people with no ulterior motive but to do his duty. (Once again, we must gently nod in the direction of the annual Eskom salary, and wonder what the longer-term career consequences will be.)

De Ruyter’s self-branding as a good white man is enhanced throughout the interview by displays of racial self-awareness. He makes starry-eyed mention of one “wise colleague,” implied to be a black woman, who helps him understand his white Afrikaans blindspots. Like a local version of the US mammy stereotype, this generous and supportive black woman seems to have been happy to educate de Ruyter, helping him to bypass the prejudices that are one of the few negative elements of the version of Afrikaner identity on show here.

He also namechecks his personal assistant “Zodwa,” another generous and helpful supporting character, thus putting black femininity into its stereotypical place as servile to the CEO, who is naturalized as male and white. Zodwa has been “educated” to keep the coffee coming to service de Ruyter’s caffeine addiction, which is then implicated in the alleged poisoning attempt. This incident is the central pole for his claims of victimhood, pivoting away from a state of privileged knowing towards one of physical suffering and pain.

De Ruyter seems to claim that the attack on him was also an attack on the state. He argues that the story was reported in major US and European news media, which affected investor confidence, highlighting his own significance as a national asset. In this narrative, he appears as a crucially important public servant who should be protected by the state that he is serving. While of course no public servant should be subjected to violence or threats of violence, the current facts of the South African polity make this disturbingly common. In suggesting that he, and he alone, should be offered special protection by the state, as opposed to the many honest civil servants and whistleblowers who take huge risks to protect South Africa’s failing assets, de Ruyter perhaps unconsciously echoes the hysterical mythos that equates murders of white farmers to a planned genocide. This is a statement of white exceptionalism, insisting that his contribution and presence are unusually significant.

Continuing the thread of his exceptional victimhood, de Ruyter bemoans the neglect and incompetence that characterized his case, as though these are not the absolute norm in police investigations in South Africa. He points out how he was treated with suspicion by powerful people in government, that he was the subject of spy investigations, had tracking devices placed in his car, was called derogatory names by ministers, and so on. The narrative here is that despite being a good guy, a superhero even, trying to single-handedly fix a very, very broken thing, he was victimized and attacked rather than being rewarded for his efforts. The result of all this injustice is a kind of discursive shrug: “Guys, I tried, so now I’m going to lay low in Europe.” Such options were not available to Babita Deokaran.

Curiously, de Ruyter also uses the interview to present himself as an environmentalist. He namedrops his visit to COP27. He emphasizes the importance of wind and solar power, worries about air pollution and water scarcity, and wants to contribute to keeping the planet liveable for future generations. Regardless of any attempts he may have made to push Eskom towards renewables, it is disconcerting to witness someone who was at the helm of one of the world’s filthiest energy companies so unctuously suggest that he is a climate activist. These claims ring hollow. Having departed from a position where he could conceivably influence energy policy, de Ruyter now, conveniently, wants to champion a transition to just energy.

Further to his narrative of being a good, rational, environmentalist, de Ruyter strategically uses science in his self-promotion. He cites University of the Witwatersrand climatology expert Professor Francois Engelbrecht, notably favoring a white man’s expertise, as evidence for a coming mega-drought. He talks about the high-tech, artificial intelligence cameras and programs that he implemented in the fight against sabotage within Eskom. He goes into detail about the attempted cyanide poisoning and the medical and toxicological aspects of the testing. His comments suggest that he is comfortable with the science, and more importantly, that he knows all the experts personally. He repeatedly mentions his new environmental stance and actually ends the interview with his desire to fight climate change. He does not say how, or indeed whether, his professional track record might impact meaningful participation.

There are various competing and intersecting claims to power in this text. De Ruyter is at once victim and superhero, both scared and brave, both racially self-aware and emphatic about his authority. He offers himself as a mouthpiece of white middle-class outrage about how Eskom has been allowed to fall apart, deflecting all blame towards the democratic government while strategically ignoring any responsibilities of the apartheid state. He talks about his direct line to government ministers and powerful people high up in intelligence, to professors, to scientists, while criticizing the ANC for its “embarrassing” socialist discourses. The party is, de Ruyter would have us believe, stuck in the 1980s, while he—the very image of a modern, educated, and urbane Afrikaner—looks to the future, obliquely suggesting yet again that white South Africans are better placed to be in charge than those who took over from them.

De Ruyter engages common scaremonger tactics, warning of impending social and environmental catastrophes (mega-droughts, total blackout, and concomitant crime and looting), but is forthright about his plans to leave the country and “lay low” for a while. There is no sense here of the intense irony of this contradictory position: that de Ruyter the man of morals, the superhero who wants to save South Africa, the victim at the mercy of the government, is able to access an easy life in the imagined white citadels of civilized Europe. He is a victim when it is discursively convenient to be one and a figure of authority when it is not. He is patriotic when it suits him, but ready to jet off at any moment. Is he powerful or powerless, or a strategic combination of both? How do we read his position, suspecting as we must that a rich, elite white man with a long corporate history would be skilled in using the media spotlight to his advantage?

Notwithstanding his masterful massaging of the narrative, supported by Larsen’s uncritical approach, there is one point in the interview where the reality of de Ruyter’s worldview creeps through. About midway through he cautions that the country should accept that Eskom can never be returned to “its former glory.” But what glory is this? What glory was there in a state utility that served only white communities, keeping the lights and the pool pumps on all through the decades of apartheid while black communities languished without power under clouds of coal smoke? Eskom was never designed to serve all South Africa’s people. And similarly, it seems that this presentation of de Ruyter as the savior of Eskom, hampered by the evil forces of the ANC, is designed less to serve the nation than to serve himself.

About the Author

Mehita Iqani is a professor of communications in the Journalism Department at Stellenbosch University, where she currently runs research projects on climate and environment, health and happiness and creative communications through the DSI-NRF-funded SA Research Chair in Science Communication.

Nicky Falkof is a writer and academic based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is an associate professor in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Further Reading