The ex-CEO of Eskom, Andre De Ruyter, has portrayed himself as a heroic figure attempting to rescue South Africa’s power utility from corrupt influences. However, this narrative that is infused with racial undertones is ultimately motivated by his own interests.

By Mehita Iqani and Nicky Falkof

De Ruyter seems to claim that the attack on him was also an attack on the state. He argues that the story was reported in major US and European news media, which affected investor confidence, highlighting his own significance as a national asset. In this narrative, he appears as a crucially important public servant who should be protected by the state that he is serving.

While of course no public servant should be subjected to violence or threats of violence, the current facts of the South African polity make this disturbingly common. In suggesting that he, and he alone, should be offered special protection by the state, as opposed to the many honest civil servants and whistleblowers who take huge risks to protect South Africa’s failing assets, de Ruyter perhaps unconsciously echoes the hysterical mythos that equates murders of white farmers to a planned genocide. This is a statement of white exceptionalism, insisting that his contribution and presence are unusually significant.

Continuing the thread of his exceptional victimhood, de Ruyter bemoans the neglect and incompetence that characterized his case, as though these are not the absolute norm in police investigations in South Africa. He points out how he was treated with suspicion by powerful people in government, that he was the subject of spy investigations, had tracking devices placed in his car, was called derogatory names by ministers, and so on.

The narrative here is that despite being a good guy, a superhero even, trying to single-handedly fix a very, very broken thing, he was victimized and attacked rather than being rewarded for his efforts. The result of all this injustice is a kind of discursive shrug: “Guys, I tried, so now I’m going to lay low in Europe.” Such options were not available to Babita Deokaran.

Curiously, de Ruyter also uses the interview to present himself as an environmentalist. He namedrops his visit to COP27. He emphasises the importance of wind and solar power, worries about air pollution and water scarcity, and wants to contribute to keeping the planet liveable for future generations.

Regardless of any attempts he may have made to push Eskom towards renewables, it is disconcerting to witness someone who was at the helm of one of the world’s filthiest energy companies so unctuously suggest that he is a climate activist. These claims ring hollow. Having departed from a position where he could conceivably influence energy policy, de Ruyter now, conveniently, wants to champion a transition to just energy.

Further to his narrative of being a good, rational, environmentalist, de Ruyter strategically uses science in his self-promotion. He cites University of the Witwatersrand climatology expert Professor Francois Engelbrecht, notably favouring a white man’s expertise, as evidence for a coming mega-drought. He talks about the high-tech, artificial intelligence cameras and programs that he implemented in the fight against sabotage within Eskom. He goes into detail about the attempted cyanide poisoning and the medical and toxicological aspects of the testing. His comments suggest that he is comfortable with the science, and more importantly, that he knows all the experts personally.

He repeatedly mentions his new environmental stance and actually ends the interview with his desire to fight climate change. He does not say how, or indeed whether, his professional track record might impact meaningful participation.

There are various competing and intersecting claims to power in this text. De Ruyter is at once victim and superhero, both scared and brave, both racially self-aware and emphatic about his authority. He offers himself as a mouthpiece of white middle-class outrage about how Eskom has been allowed to fall apart, deflecting all blame towards the democratic government while strategically ignoring any responsibilities of the apartheid state.

He talks about his direct line to government ministers and powerful people high up in intelligence, to professors, to scientists, while criticizing the ANC for its “embarrassing” socialist discourses. The party is, de Ruyter would have us believe, stuck in the 1980s, while he – the very image of a modern, educated, and urbane Afrikaner – looks to the future, obliquely suggesting yet again that white South Africans are better placed to be in charge than those who took over from them.

De Ruyter engages common scaremonger tactics, warning of impending social and environmental catastrophes (mega-droughts, total blackout, and concomitant crime and looting), but is forthright about his plans to leave the country and “lay low” for a while. There is no sense here of the intense irony of this contradictory position: that de Ruyter the man of morals, the superhero who wants to save South Africa, the victim at the mercy of the government, is able to access an easy life in the imagined white citadels of civilised Europe.

He is a victim when it is discursively convenient to be one and a figure of authority when it is not. He is patriotic when it suits him, but ready to jet off at any moment. Is he powerful or powerless, or a strategic combination of both? How do we read his position, suspecting as we must that a rich, elite white man with a long corporate history would be skilled in using the media spotlight to his advantage?

Notwithstanding his masterful massaging of the narrative, supported by Larsen’s uncritical approach, there is one point in the interview where the reality of de Ruyter’s worldview creeps through. About midway through he cautions that the country should accept that Eskom can never be returned to “its former glory.”

But what glory is this? What glory was there in a state utility that served only white communities, keeping the lights and the pool pumps on all through the decades of apartheid while black communities languished without power under clouds of coal smoke? Eskom was never designed to serve all South Africa’s people. And similarly, it seems that this presentation of de Ruyter as the saviour of Eskom, hampered by the evil forces of the ANC, is designed less to serve the nation than to serve himself. –

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