Andre de Ruyter, the chief executive officer of South Africa’s beleaguered state power company, Eskom, resigned Wednesday after he was scapegoated by the ruling African National Congress for ongoing blackouts.
De Ruyter, who is known for turning around failing companies, took the job in 2020 and began trying to save the country’s power generation capacity from further deterioration amid increasing electricity shortages.
Eskom once provided cheap and abundant power to South Africa and surrounding nations. It was considered a candidate for privatization twenty years ago as part of an effort to raise foreign direct investment to the country.
But left-wing critics of privatization prevailed, and Eskom remained state-owned, allowing the ruling party to use Eskom to provide jobs and contracts to its cronies, and to pursue aggressive affirmative action policies.
The result was a departure of skills and resources from the company, which failed to invest in new generating capacity or technology as the country’s economy slowly grew and access was expanded to poor customers.
De Ruyter was praised by the business community, even in a year that has seen severe “load shedding” — the familiar local term for planned power outages. But he was scapegoated by the ruling party, often in racial terms.
Eskom was also targeted by saboteurs, who damaged the electricity infrastructure, apparently in an effort to increase political pressure on De Ruyter and the company. Police have done little to stop or solve the sabotage.
Energy minister Gwede Mantashe, a powerful player in the ruling party, publicly blamed De Ruyter for the country’s electricity woes, accusing him of “actively agitating for the overthrow of the state” through blackouts.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, facing calls for impeachment in a corruption scandal, failed to defend De Ruyter, possibly because he needs Mantashe’s support within the ruling party to survive internal leadership challenges.
With De Ruyter finally declaring that he was resigning, effective in March, the country’s economic future has been thrown into greater turmoil, with few obvious candidates to lead Eskom, and no end to blackouts in sight.