South African police are investigating allegations by the outgoing head of state-owned power company Eskom that he was poisoned.
Andre de Ruyter alleges someone put cyanide in his coffee a day after he tendered his resignation. De Ruyter has been criticized for failing to end widespread graft in the company that fueled the worst blackouts in South Africa’s history.
Debt-ridden Eskom says due to the police investigation, it cannot comment on de Ruyter’s claim that someone tried to poison him at his Johannesburg office on December 13.
The story broke over the weekend with de Ruyter telling energy analyst and editor of EE Business Intelligence Chris Yelland that after drinking the coffee, he became weak, dizzy and confused, and started vomiting.
De Ruyter went to a doctor and tests were conducted.
South Africa’s minister of public enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, says the alleged attempt on de Ruyter’s life will be thoroughly investigated and those responsible will be charged.
Morne Malan, the head of communications at Solidarity, a union with 6,000 members at Eskom, believes the alleged poisoning was linked to de Ruyter’s fight against corruption.
“All the indications at the moment are that he was in fact poisoned based on the toxicology report,” Malan said. “From our understanding, normal cyanide levels for a human being would be around 15 milligrams per liter of blood whereas Andre de Ruyter’s was at over 40 milligrams per liter.”
De Ruyter submitted his resignation shortly after Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe criticized Eskom’s management, saying, “Eskom by not attending to load-shedding is actively agitating for the overthrow of the state.”
Malan says the union doesn’t believe Mantashe’s accusation because he says de Ruyter always put Eskom first and did his best.
Malan added that due to political interference in South Africa’s state-owned enterprises, it’s almost impossible for any CEO to conduct business independently.
“It’s terribly difficult to actually judge the extent to which he was effective,” Malan said. “There are certain things we can point to. We do believe he did a relatively good job at alleviating Eskom’s debt load. The fact of the matter is that load-shedding was significantly worse last year than ever before. We did have over 200 days of load-shedding in 2022.”
Across the country, rolling power cuts known as load-shedding were first implemented by Eskom around 2008 due to demand outstripping supply. In 2022, South Africa experienced blackouts for up to 10 hours a day at times.
Energy analysts blame corruption, crippling debt, lack of maintenance of aging coal-powered plants, and the inability to procure new plants and renewable energy sources in a timely manner as reasons for the demise of the once world-class power utility.
Meanwhile, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa has refused to comment on the poisoning investigation, referring instead to a statement issued in December. It said it is overjoyed by de Ruyter’s resignation and called him the worst CEO in the history of Eskom.
Energy expert Ted Blom was also critical of de Ruyter.
“In terms of delivering the fix-up at Eskom, he grossly underperformed and he’s actually leaving Eskom in a far worse situation than what he inherited it,” Blom said.
He added that he doesn’t know anyone who would want to take the job at Eskom.
“It certainly is not fixable by one or two people. If you are going to bring in a team to fix up Eskom it’s going to have to be in the form of a task force. They’re going to have to be independent and they’re going to have a mandate that is irrevocable for a period of time,” Blom said. “You can’t have chopping and changing every 18 months or every year like Eskom’s had in the past 15 years.”
De Ruyter, who officially started as CEO in January 2020, is expected to leave Eskom on March 31.