Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan tore strips off former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter during his appearance before Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) on Wednesday, dismissing descriptions of De Ruyter as a whistle-blower and suggesting that naming politicians fingered in an unsubstantiated privately funded intelligence report would amount to a smear campaign.
The Scopa meeting is the fourth to be convened following allegations of serious corruption and sabotage made by De Ruyter during an explosive television interview in February and subsequently also repeated in his book, which was released on May 14.
De Ruyter himself appeared before Scopa virtually from an undisclosed location on April 26 and there have been subsequent appearances by the South African Police Service, the Hawks, the Special Investigating Unit, as well as current and former Eskom board members.
Gordhan used the platform to refute a claim made by former Eskom interim chairperson Professor Malegapuru Makgoba that the off-the-books R50-million private investigation had been conducted on Gordhan’s own urging.
“With great respect to [Makgoba], he's got it absolutely wrong,” Gordhan said, indicating that he was first informed about the investigation in June or July 2022, while De Ruyter had already initiated the investigation in January.
“So, he [De Ruyter] was operating on his own free will, so to speak, on this project and, of course, at the same time it seemed he was writing a book as well,” Gordhan said, speaking after had emerged that De Ruyter had entered into a publishing contract while still CEO at the State-owned utility.
That decision, along with the book itself, came in for harsh criticism from several committee members, mostly from the governing African National Congress (ANC).
“To write a book like this while you are supposed to be running a big organisation does raise some questions about what was [his] focus,” the Minister said.
Gordhan even questioned whether the decision to write the book might not be in breach of the good governance De Ruyter claimed to champion, as well as a confidentiality clause that he signed when taking on the role of CEO.
The Minister took particular umbrage to some of the “political” sentiments expressed by De Ruyter both in the television interview with eNCA and amplified in the book implying that ANC politicians were “mindless” communists “for whom the hammer and sickle must be drawn in our parking bays”.
“[De Ruyter] seems to have remembered for some reason, in particular, the 1980s and taken the country back to ‘swart gevaar’ tactics,” Gordhan said, referring to the Afrikaans phrase meaning ‘black danger’ that had been used as propaganda by the apartheid government to persuade white voters of the threat posed by majority rule.
Gordhan described De Ruyter’s characterisation of ANC politicians as the “worst insult”, particularly for anti-apartheid activists of the 1970s and 1980s, and suggested that the former CEO saw many politicians as “fools”.
MPUMALANGA IS A CRIME SCENE, BUT . . .
However, Gordhan, who led the internal revolt during the State Capture-era of President Jacob Zuma’s administration, did concur with De Ruyter that corruption and sabotage were a reality at Eskom, describing the coal province of Mpumalanga as a “crime scene”.
Nevertheless, he stressed that it was not a new revelation nor one that had come to light only as a result of the private investigation, which was conducted by George Fivaz Forensic & Risk, but whose credibility has since been questioned.
A News24 exposé indicates that the lead investigator, Tony Oosthuizen, had been an apartheid military intelligence operative, who had allegedly participated in the killing of anti-apartheid activists.
Gordhan admitted to having been shown a “diagram” in which the names of politicians were displayed as having direct links to certain coal cartels, but refused to be drawn on their identities.
“Allegations of the involvement of politicians as overlords in this grand scheme have been swirling around for years.
“Without tangible evidence that will withstand judicial scrutiny, there is no point speculating who these politicians may be.
“We all have our suspicions, but without solid proof they will remain just that.
“So, chairperson, I'm not going to implicate or smear the reputations of others without credible evidence and verifiable facts being provided.”
Gordhan also stressed that he had not seen the report arising from the investigation and that he could, thus, not mention the names from an investigation that was “not complete”.
He also argued that previous uncorroborated intelligence reports had “done a great deal of harm and immeasurable damage to our country and to its institutions and, by the way to individuals like Johan Booysen”.
Booysen, who was the head of the Hawks in KwaZulu-Natal, was falsely implicated in a so-called Cato Manor death squad report contrived by police crime intelligence to dispose of him.
Gordhan also noted that he himself had been fired as Finance Minister in 2017 on the basis of a so-called intelligence report.
“I know personally what I'm talking about,” he told Scopa members.
De Ruyter’s claims that he had been “micromanaged” by Gordhan were also dismissed out of hand, describing the characterisation as a “lie” and an attempt at “character assassination”.
“As a shareholder, I have not been shy to ask tough questions about how things work, why they don't work . . . And there is nothing wrong with that, because I'm required to give explanations whether it is to Parliament or to the public about what goes on in the situation.
“So if tough questions can't be answered, then it says something about the capability of individuals,” he said, indicating that the issue of micromanagement appeared to be linked to his probing questions relating to the precipitous decline in the energy availability factor of the coal plants.
Questioned about whether De Ruyter’s appointment had been a mistake, Gorhan offer a nuanced answer, indicating that De Ruyter had achieved some “good things”, notably in relation to catalysing the just energy transition.
“I think the work he did in relation to the just energy transition was good, although he showed very poor accountability,” Gordan said, indicating that De Ruyter had held meetings abroad that should have been conducted at a political level.
“That was another example of a 'Lone Ranger' operating,” Gordhan said, while stressing that the initiative “was a necessary one and one that we need to pursue”.
The Minister also noted that the Covid pandemic had also been an extremely disruptive factor during De Ruyter’s period as CEO.
“Ultimately the way he ended his term I don’t think did him any favours in terms of his reputation, except for those who think that here we have a whistle-blower.
“He’s not a whistle-blower, he was the head of an institution – you don’t blow a whistle to yourself unless you are whistling a tune.”