This interview between Moneyweb editor Ryk van Niekerk and Eskom CEO André de Ruyter was originally recorded in Afrikaans and broadcast on RSG Geldsake. Below is the English translation.
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RYK VAN NIEKERK: At his media conference today [Friday November 19, 2021] Eskom chief executive André de Ruyter bluntly announced that Eskom’s infrastructure is being sabotaged and that this is contributing to the incidence of load shedding. To support this he showed photographs of eight cable stays from a transmission-line tower that had been cut at the Lethabo Power Station near Vereeniging. The tower had been pushed over and this interrupted the delivery of coal to the power station. Eskom staff however managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat and devised a plan to prevent it interrupting the power station’s generation of electricity. Had the station not been able to do so, this might have led to as much as Level 6 load shedding. Lethabo is apparently one of Eskom’s most reliable power stations.
André now joins me on the line. André, I can hardly believe that sabotage takes place. It’s not as though Eskom doesn’t already have enough problems. Have you any indication of the perpetrators of this sabotage?
ANDRÉ DE RUYTER: Ryk, this is an extremely disappointing incident. One cannot believe that there are people in South Africa who want deliberately to disrupt the delivery of electricity. Unfortunately at this point we have no idea of the motive behind this, or of those involved. We have handed the matter over to the police and they are investigating, but we have no further information at this stage.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: In the past few months there have been regular breakdowns at some of your power stations. Have there been any other indications of sabotage?
Read: Eskom facing ‘deliberate’ acts of sabotage, CEO says
ANDRÉ DE RUYTER: Ryk, I have so far been very reluctant to use the work ‘sabotage’, because that is an emotive word with negative connotations. We can often not really make a distinction between the economic crime of cable theft, or negligence on the part of operators, or whether there has really been deliberate criminal activity against the state involving sabotage. But I think in this case it was patently obvious that eight of these 24mm steel stays were simultaneously cut, with the clear intention to disrupt the coal supply for Lethabo’s electricity transmission. This patently falls within the definition of ‘sabotage’.
It does not exclude the possibility of incidents having taken place elsewhere, but I haven’t found absolute proof of sabotage at some of the other incidents. One can’t be sure whether such incidents have been due to negligence or criminal activity – of cable theft.
This is the first case where we have irrefutable proof that it was an attempt to undermine Eskom’s electricity transmission.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Eskom is a national key point; it’s of cardinal importance for South Africa. How strict is your security?
ANDRÉ DE RUYTER: We have fair security. We need to do more in that regard. We have launched a huge campaign to obtain infrared-equipped drones to patrol around our power stations. We have had major successes in terms of arresting cable thieves. We installed smart cameras that can detect suspicious behaviour and inform control centres situated outside Eskom. We have new, independent security companies to help with inspecting vehicles, as well as vehicles making deliveries. But we cannot of course continuously supervise the 390 000km of transmission and distribution network. This happened in a really remote area far from any settlement
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Evidently the perpetrators knew exactly what they were doing. It’s not a case of someone playing a prank; it’s exactly what you said at the media conference – that it’s not that difficult to work out precisely how to do the least amount to bring about the greatest possible disruption.
ANDRÉ DE RUYTER: No. It’s clearly someone who knew where were we are vulnerable, and what clearly indicates that this was not an economic crime is the fact that nothing was stolen. Had it been an attempt at theft one would have expected that someone would have removed something, but only the steel stays anchoring the cables were cut, and one has to assume that pylon was pushed over onto the other line so as to put both out of action. So yes – it was meticulously planned.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: How good are the relations between you, your executive team and the workers?
ANDRÉ DE RUYTER: I think we generally have good support from our employees. I regularly receive positive feedback from them. We also regularly communicate with our employees. The relationship with some of our unions is less good. This year we implemented a 1.5% [wage] increase, which was much lower than the 15% demanded by two of the unions, Num and Numsa. We explained the rationale for the lower increase quite clearly to employees, but we also communicated it directly to the employees – to great unhappiness on the part of the two unions which would have preferred to receive the message from management themselves and communicate it to their members in their own fashion. So I think the problem is not so much our relationship with the workers.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Evidently someone is unhappy. Have either you or your management team personally received threats?
ANDRÉ DE RUYTER: Yes. I have in the past week needed to lay criminal charges, as well as obtain an interdict against the leaders of a political party who physically threatened both my family and myself, which was rather unpleasant. As a result we had to report these individuals and sharpen our security as well.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: How did Eskom get into such a situation? A year ago there was a great deal of optimism that you would now do the correct maintenance and that load shedding could be reduced, but today we have a totally different scenario, with threats to yourself and sabotage at some of your power stations. Is the situation out of control?
ANDRÉ DE RUYTER: I think what one now needs to remember is the context within which these incidents take place.
There is clearly an entire ecosystem of interested groups that have over the years become dependent on the huge outflow of monies from Eskom. We are busy closing those taps. At Tutuka we stopped the theft of R100 million a month.
Bethelda had spares worth R1.3 billion just at Tutuka Power Station disappear. I think the incidents on which the media have already extensively reported regarding malpractices in our procurement of items for which we have paid many times more than the prices out in the open market, are all examples of our turning off of the taps – and that would of course not have made my management team and myself popular.
I believe the best way to ensure that we are put under suspicion, or our skills are made questionable, is to somehow upset the stability of the power stations. Of course it’s disappointing. I do think we are talking of a small minority of people, but people clearly with a huge impact.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: I assume the big priority now is to find these people. How you plan to catch them? What are your plans?
ANDRÉ DE RUYTER: At this point we are in discussions with the law enforcement authorities. We ourselves of course have no powers of arrest; we can undertake certain security investigations, we can do forensic examinations, but ultimately we are highly dependent on the country’s security agencies and government institutions to make their contribution as well.
Earlier today I appealed to the State Security Agency to help by proactively collecting intelligence so that we can make sure that we can intercept this type of behaviour before it occurs.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: André, many thanks for your time and strength to [you] going ahead. It sounds like you have your hands full.
ANDRÉ DE RUYTER: Thank you very much, Ryk.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: That was Eskom CEO, André de Ruyter.