By Trevor Ngwane
After 38 months at the helm of Eskom, Andre de Ruyter has exchanged his executive power suit for a typewriter. His recently published memoir, Truth to Power: My Three Years at Eskom, published by Penguin, is likely to be a best-seller, given the omnipresent electricity energy crisis in South Africa and the yearning for solutions by everyone affected.
While there will be general interest in the topical issues raised in his book, by writing a memoir, De Ruyter has also thrown the spotlight on his tenure as CEO of Eskom. Did he succeed or fail? Is he a hero or a villain?
Memoirs focus on a particular experience and time in one person’s life and the challenges faced. They use vivid, descriptive language to help the reader visualise the writer’s experiences and emotions and thus connect with the story at a deeper level. The writer must seem candid, honest and vulnerable so that the reader can understand and identify with their journey. In this regard, De Ruyter has succeeded, and many people will find the book a page-turner because of its many stories about his encounters with many figures of power and authority, including with the president of the country, and his candid opinions of them and of issues of national importance.
Memoirs are written for a purpose. As a writer, you seek to influence people’s thinking about you, the issues you raise, and about themselves. The best memoirs are those that inspire readers, clarify their thinking, and help them approach their own challenges with more vigour and conviction. With everyone concerned about load shedding, the energy crisis and the socio-economic situation in South Africa, De Ruyter undoubtedly, set out to share, explain and win support for his ideas around these issues – and the evaluation of his tenure as Eskom boss.
Who is De Ruyter? His book answers this question but perhaps not at a deeper ideological level. He writes about his youth, schooling, family, jobs, politics, and other aspects, which makes him the man he is. As an adult professional, he became a captain of industry, occupying executive managerial positions in corporations such as Nampak and Sasol. He refers to his Afrikaner background with pride, albeit distancing himself from apartheid ideas and practices. Indeed, he joined the Progressive Federal Party, which, no doubt, earned him condemnation as ‘boetie’ to the wrong race.
Taking up the challenge of leading Eskom was part of his refusal to remain ensconced and complacent in the lap of white bourgeois privilege, ‘fed up with the braai-side whining and moaning, where predominantly white men would drink great wine and eat massive steaks while standing safely on the sidelines and criticising the players on the field. Surely, someone, somewhere, would have to go into the trenches.’ To some this may suggest that he saw himself as a white knight in shining armour who went into the trenches to fight and save Eskom and the country.
Things are different today, but the question can still be asked whether De Ruyter’s decision to head Eskom can be regarded as noble and heroic in the manner we think of revolutionary Afrikaners such as Beyers Naude and Bram Fischer or English speakers such as Helen Joseph and Ruth First, who broke rank with the racist establishment and decided to forego their white privileges and join the struggle for liberation on the side of black people.
De Ruyter says he sacrificed a cushy job and career in the corporate sector, including taking a salary cut when he joined Eskom. He makes certain claims about his successes at Eskom but also admits to some unachieved goals. Nevertheless, in his assessment, he did enough to lay a foundation for his successors: ‘Oom Boy: I know the scoreboard doesn’t look that great right now, but the second half is yet to be played.’
The reference to Springbok rugby legend Oom Boy Louw occurs in the very last sentence of the book and reflects De Ruyter’s glass-half-full benign self-assessment of his tenure at Eskom. With South Africa experiencing relentless load shedding and talk of Stage 16 and impending grid collapse, many will take this with a pinch of salt. Perhaps it was not the best way to end the book. Nevertheless, many will find solace, affirmation and inspiration in what De Ruyter says in other parts of his book.
Antonio Gramsci identified two types of intellectuals. Everyone is an intellectual by virtue of thinking, selecting and organising ideas, but some people were employed to study and elaborate ideas, such as university professors, which he called traditional intellectuals. The other group are organic intellectuals, which he defined as practical thinkers and doers who are specialists who conduct technical, directive and organisational functions that, under capitalism, fulfil the economic-corporative needs of the capitalist class. In other words, the manager of a factory not only directs through the power of managerial compulsion but must also lead through espousing ideas that organise production and win the buy-in of the employees. Rulers rule through force and consent.
De Ruyter’s biography, arguably defines him as an organic intellectual of the ruling class. He was brought into Eskom to captain the unwieldy state-owned enterprise using capitalist methods and navigating it towards the Neo-liberal solutions that the ANC government, and the capitalist class behind it, are espousing for the South African economy.
In his book, he lists his unbundling of Eskom into generation, transmission and distribution as a major achievement, which opens the door for the entry of the private sector into the state-dominated energy industry. He gloats about his bold insistence on getting residents and ‘delinquent’ municipalities to pay their Eskom debts using punitive debt collection methods.
De Ruyter hates Marxism, ‘a dead-end ideology’, and rants against the ‘myopic local content policy’ of the ANC government and the attempt ‘to solve the energy crisis, but then we also want to protect local industry, we want to promote BEE, we want to give opportunities to women, the youth and people with disabilities.’ These elements of the ANC’s vision of a developmental state are to blame for the crisis South Africa finds itself in, he says. ‘The left-wing solutions promoted by the ANC haven’t made a dent in load shedding for fifteen years and have led to catastrophic unemployment and anaemic economic growth.’
De Ruyter could not succeed as Eskom's CEO because his views are out of sync with the economic realities and priorities of the working class and the poor in South Africa. He is an organic intellectual of the capitalist class who was planted to push the ANC government further and further away from its vision of a developmental state and a better life for all. Putting profit before the needs of the people has always been the Achilles heel of the South African economy from the days of colonialism, apartheid until today. De Ruyter’s Neo-liberal ideas must be rejected.
*Trevor Ngwane is the Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.