Load shedding, sabotage and cyanide: in South Africa, the thousand and one dangers of electricity

Subject to almost daily power cuts for more than six months, South Africa is at the end of its tether

Load shedding, sabotage and cyanide: in South Africa, the thousand and one dangers of electricity

Subject to almost daily power cuts for more than six months, South Africa is at the end of its tether. Exasperation ended up turning into tragedy in the municipality of Ekurhuleni, at the gates of Johannesburg. To the load shedding imposed up to ten hours a day is added here the vandalism of "cable thieves" who strip the electrical installations of their copper to resell it on the black market. On March 6, a team of contractors had just been called in to repair one of these cables when it was attacked by a mob. Accused of being copper thieves, the four technicians were beaten to death.

In the power plants of Eskom, the public electricity company, the threat is of a different nature. Officially, the unprecedented level of load shedding is attributed to the company's lack of production capacity, aggravated by the dilapidated state of the coal-fired power stations, most of which are over 40 years old. But another factor weighs on the situation: since the company intensifies its efforts to put an end to a corruption of which the country discovers every day a little more the extent, the unexplained breakdowns, the proven sabotages and the threats against the staff are increasing.

Characterized by a "significant" level of crime, according to Eskom management, the coal-fired power plant in Tutuka, two hours from Johannesburg, is operating at less than 17% of its capacity. The site manager travels in a bulletproof vest, accompanied by two armed men. "His wife is protected by bodyguards, his children are also escorted by bodyguards when they go to school, because of the death threats against him and his family," said André de Ruyter, then CEO of Eskom, in a hearing before a parliamentary committee on January 24. The company's chief operating officer has also received threats.

"Cartels" Backed by an Armada of Killers

Boss of Eskom for three years, André de Ruyter himself revealed that he had been the victim of an attempted poisoning after drinking coffee during a work meeting. "About fifteen minutes after that cup of coffee, I started feeling nauseous, I got confused, I couldn't find the word for 'power station,'" he recounted on February 21 in an explosive interview broadcast by the South African channel ENCA. Seized by violent tremors and then vomiting, he was treated urgently. A toxicology test will reveal "significantly elevated" levels of cyanide in his system.

Who could have wanted the skin of the boss of Eskom? “When you start turning off the taps, people get upset,” responds André de Ruyter, who estimates that around €50 million is diverted from the business every month. At the heart of the system, several "cartels" supported by an armada of killers, "between 60 and 70 trained and well-armed people", he explains: "It is difficult to speculate who might have wanted to attempt my life, but obviously the list of people who own a mobile is long. »

The number of his enemies has not diminished since these declarations. Because André de Ruyter also accused the African National Congress (ANC, Nelson Mandela's party, in power since the fall of apartheid) of being an accomplice in the corruption that plagues Eskom. He notably recounted having warned a minister of his fear of seeing billions of dollars intended to finance the energy transition fall prey to criminal appetites. "You know, you have to be pragmatic: to do good, you have to allow some people to eat a little," he would have been told. André de Ruyter also assures that at least "a high-level politician" would be involved in these large-scale hijackings.

Dropped by the executive as President Cyril Ramaphosa prepared to play for his re-election as head of the ANC, André de Ruyter announced his resignation in December 2022 and was due to leave Eskom in March. He was finally relieved of his duties less than twenty-four hours after the broadcast of his shock interview. In the aftermath, he was violently attacked by a parade of ruling party heavyweights. "The ANC is not corrupt," thundered its secretary general, Fikile Mbalula, in particular, rejecting the "unfortunate, irresponsible and baseless allegations" of the now ex-CEO, accused of seeking a political destiny on the side of the " regressive right”.

The ANC, "accused number 1" in matters of corruption

Block denials that contrast with the time, not so long ago, when President Ramaphosa recognized that the party was "accused number 1" in matters of corruption. "This is the harsh reality that we must now face", explained the head of state in August 2020, calling on the movement to do its introspection. Rather than launching an investigation into the accusations raised, the ANC this time summoned André de Ruyter to provide proof of his allegations. Otherwise, the party promises legal action against the former boss.

After declaring a state of national disaster to deal with the energy crisis, Cyril Ramaphosa appointed an electricity minister, the first of its kind in South Africa, in a paltry reshuffle on March 6. But just as he took office, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa warned that he had "neither the capacity nor the mandate to tackle corruption issues". The new minister refers the problem to the police, deemed ineffective in this area by the former CEO of Eskom.

André de Ruyter has not spoken in public since his sensational exit. To the journalist who asked him, at the end of the interview, if he feared for his life after his revelations, the manager replied that he intended to spend time abroad. Just before, he gave advice to his successor: "Don't have a mug of your own. »