Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

By Mehita Iqani and Nicky Falkof

The South African media has recently been abuzz, yet again, with talk of Andre de Ruyter, the former CEO of embattled power utility Eskom, who, until his recent departure, oversaw the parastatal for three years.

Notoriously, Eskom is in what seems to be a state of “permacrisis”. Out-of-date technology, ineffectual maintenance, endemic corruption, and criminal inefficiency have combined to the point that the country is crippled by waves of so-called load-shedding—otherwise known as planned power cuts—designed to forestall total grid collapse.

Amid the national panic and governmental inertia about the failures of Eskom, de Ruyter has emerged as a divisive figure, with some believing he should take responsibility for what happened under his watch and others insisting he was scuppered by shadowy figures within the ruling African National Congress. His newly released tell-all book, Truth to Power: My Three Years at Eskom, has made a series of scathing accusations that have once again pushed him to the top of the news cycle.

But de Ruyter’s attempts at crafting a narrative about his tenure at Eskom began before the book was released. Having announced his resignation in December 2022, and then surviving an alleged poisoning attempt, in February this year de Ruyter gave a dramatic exit interview to veteran journalist Annika Larsen on eNCA (South Africa’s most-watched 24-hour news channel).

The interview is fascinating for what it reveals about how de Ruyter used the interview, and Larsen’s failure to ask critical questions, to influence public opinion and bolster his personal brand. The interview also exhibits a set of assumptions about the morality and competence of white men that remains infuriatingly common in public discourse, where tussles over race and meaning continue. South Africa’s power crisis is also, of course, a crisis of power.

In the best traditions of media spin, de Ruyter uses the interview to “set the record straight,” emphasizing the image that he wants to associate with his name and reputation. Unsurprisingly, he positions himself as the good guy in a bad situation, the one non-rotten apple in the barrel. He uses several metaphors to drive home this message, in language pulled straight from popular TV serials:

  • De Ruyter as a doctor, a skilled surgeon trying to operate on the “metastasizing tumour” of corruption, which keeps growing faster than he can cut it out or treat it.
  • De Ruyter as a plumber, the knowledgeable artisan trying to fix the leaking taps, to “turn off the spigots” that are pouring public money into private pockets.
  • De Ruyter as an honest cop, the lone actor trying to bring down the organized crime network, investigating abuses of power with informants in every corner, “making arrests” and doing a “perp walk”.

His chosen metaphors reveal de Ruyter as a hardworking, admirable, ordinary man. This self-presentation rests also on ideas about the altruistic and honest nature of Afrikaner masculinity: the farmers who just want to feed the nation, the engineers whose only desire is to keep the railways running, understandings of Afrikaans history that ignore the violent exclusions of both farms and trains. Larsen, meanwhile, made a point of reminding viewers that de Ruyter took on the Eskom job out of a sense of public duty, in keeping with his self-branding as trustworthy and straightforward.

Here, de Ruyter is doing a kind of universe-jumping, offering us images of himself in multiple parallel vocations and life positions. But de Ruyter the plumber, de Ruyter the cop and de Ruyter the doctor are also always de Ruyter the CEO, who earned more than R7 million annually during his time at the helm of a failing public enterprise, and who previously held well-paid CEO positions at other large companies.

De Ruyter skilfully uses the interview to entrench the message that he is a good man, or more specifically a good white man, while also being an abused and vulnerable victim who deserves special protection. Much of his claim of moral uprightness is embedded in ideas about money, consumption, and luxury. De Ruyter, the interview makes clear, is not an obscene conspicuous consumer, like others he mentions who wash their hands in whiskey “because they can,” and who finagle the system so that they can drive their McLarens through the potholed streets of eMalahleni in Mpumalanga province.

He is sensible and frugal, as signalled by his chinos, blue shirt and veldskoen. An obvious symbolic departure from the CEO uniform of a suit, tie, pressed shirts and polished shoes, this new appearance is designed to suggest an ethical orientation of restraint and good sense, as well as taste, so often used to mask class judgments.

While there is of course an obvious and important link between consumption and corruption, de Ruyter’s particular employment of these tropes echoes a common racialisation of consumption, in which luxury enjoyed by black people is perceived as outrageous, excessive, inappropriate, and fundamentally immoral.

De Ruyter does not deliver this critique directly, but foregrounds the horrors of brazen corruption, with excessive consumption provided as evidence. What is important here is not just the enormous problem of corruption at Eskom, but also the fact that black people enjoying luxury lifestyles is represented as inherently immoral, in contrast to the moderation and sense of white men like de Ruyter, who, we must assume, enjoy their wealth in socially acceptable ways. (Let us briefly recall that R7 million annual salary.)

De Ruyter places the entire responsibility for the Eskom disaster onto the (implied black) corruption that ruins everything. He emphasizes how he led investigations and handed the information over to the police, who did nothing. State security also did nothing. Indeed, according to the narrative presented, everyone was complicit except for de Ruyter, who alone was trying to save the country from acts of treason. He positions himself as an honest and altruistic servant of the people with no ulterior motive but to do his duty. (Once again, we must gently nod in the direction of the annual Eskom salary, and wonder what the longer-term career consequences will be.)

De Ruyter’s self-branding as a good white man is enhanced throughout the interview by displays of racial self-awareness. He makes starry-eyed mention of one “wise colleague,” implied to be a black woman, who helps him understand his white Afrikaans blind spots. Like a local version of the US mammy stereotype, this generous and supportive black woman seems to have been happy to educate de Ruyter, helping him to bypass the prejudices that are one of the few negative elements of the version of Afrikaner identity on show here.

He also namechecks his personal assistant “Zodwa”, another generous and helpful supporting character, thus putting black femininity into its stereotypical place as servile to the CEO, who is naturalised as male and white. Zodwa has been “educated” to keep the coffee coming to service de Ruyter’s caffeine addiction, which is then implicated in the alleged poisoning attempt. This incident is the central pole for his claims of victimhood, pivoting away from a state of privileged knowing towards one of physical suffering and pain. –

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