Why South Africa’s Collapse Finally Came Down to Eskom
The electricity utility sits at the intersection of politics, incompetence, and crime.
(PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)
Could the collapse of South Africa, so long foretold by pessimists, finally be arriving? The United States government thinks it’s possible.
On February 15, the U.S. embassy in Pretoria advised Americans in South Africa to have at least seventy-two hours’ worth of food, water, medicine, and hygiene supplies in case of power outages, which have reached record levels in recent weeks, leaving users across the country without electricity for hours at a time. In January, the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council held a meeting, which was leaked to journalists in an audio recording, to discuss the need to prepare for a total collapse of South Africa’s power grid.
These alarm bells come on the heels of the resignation of Andre de Ruyter as CEO of Eskom in December 2022, three years after he was brought in to lead the embattled utility with a mandate to tackle corruption and end rolling blackouts. Resistance to his efforts at the highest levels, including by cabinet politicians, made his job impossible, and “load shedding” (as the rolling blackouts are called) reached record levels in 2021. With nothing left to lose, last month De Ruyter gave an hour-long interview to journalist Annika Larsen where he spilled the whole sorry story of corruption at Eskom.
The most explosive allegation aired by De Ruyter involved an attempt to assassinate him by putting cyanide in his coffee on December 12, the day of his resignation. “Never have a personalized mug, it’s a bad idea,” he joked. More disturbing than the assassination attempt was the total lack of interest in investigating it on the part of law enforcement. One of the workmen repairing the broken coffee machine on the day of the poisoning “has since absconded from work, he’s disappeared,” according to De Ruyter. “That remains to be investigated.” The detectives who took De Ruyter’s statement “inquired whether I had been experiencing problems with my sinuses. I asked them if they knew what cyanide was.” Weeks later, no arrests have been made.
De Ruyter was Eskom’s last, best hope. The board is not likely to find another CEO with the competence to handle this impossible job and the willingness to undertake it at the risk of death. The criminal forces that harried De Ruyter throughout his tenure will most likely now carry on their predations free of any remaining obstacles, enriching themselves until there is nothing left to loot. The dominos that would fall in the case of a total grid collapse start with phone lines, internet, and traffic lights, and end with looting, crime, and civil unrest.
So electricity could be the pillar that finally brings the Rainbow Nation tumbling to the ground. Why Eskom? Because it sits at the intersection of the three themes of South Africa’s long decline: politics, incompetence, and crime.
Politics is what prevented Eskom from raising rates throughout the late 1990s and mid-2000s, when it badly needed revenue in order to build new power stations and replace old ones. Cheap electricity was seen as a perk of post-apartheid freedom, and hikes were avoided at all costs out of fear of public backlash. The result was that Eskom’s generation capacity deteriorated to the point of crisis, and efforts to repair the damage were too little, too late.
Many South Africans simply refuse to pay their electricity bills, which is also a political problem. There is no way the ruling party would permit Eskom to cut off the vast majority of Soweto residents (around 80 percent) who don’t pay. Eskom therefore finds it impossible to collect the tens of billions of rand it is owed by delinquent customers. Even when it does attempt to cut off deadbeats, vandalism and illegal hookups render such measures futile. Any serious crackdown by Eskom on this rampant theft would doubtless be met with violence.
This would be a challenge even for the best managers, but Eskom’s managers are not the best. As a parastatal, Eskom is subject to aggressive diversity targets under Black Economic Empowerment laws. In 1995, its senior management was mandated to go from 70 percent white to 50 percent black by 1999 and 75 percent black by 2005. In 2008, Eskom’s head of human resources announced, “Over the next five years…Eskom has to appoint two new staff every day, and it is adamant that one of them will be a black woman.”
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These targets were replicated across all sectors of the South African economy, and everywhere they have had the same effect: incompetence. Anthea Jeffery’s Bee: Helping or Hurting? documents multiple instances where people died because hospital administrators or water inspectors hired due to affirmative action were not qualified for their jobs. R.W. Johnson, the international press’s most widely read writer on South African affairs, has only one leg today because in 2009 he injured his foot swimming in a lagoon that proved to be polluted and the resulting infection required an amputation—just one more casualty of incompetence at the Department of Water Affairs.
The electricity business involves bigger sums of money than water management, which is where the third factor in Eskom’s fall comes in: crime. Eskom has been a target of mafia syndicates in a way that other utilities have not, because of the black market value of the commodities it handles, notably coal but also wires and equipment. South African journalist Kyle Cowan investigated several failures at Eskom facilities, such as downed pylons and jammed coal mills, and discovered many cases where sabotage was the likely cause. Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence—but, as the assassination attempt against De Ruyter shows, both are certainly at play here. Plant managers at Eskom facilities need bulletproof vests and armed bodyguards to walk around their own facilities.
The fundamental problem that makes Eskom’s situation so intractable, as De Ruyter said in his interview, is that “you can’t post a policeman over every employee’s shoulder to watch what he’s doing.” Sabotage and theft are often invisible. The effort needed to turn around such a widespread problem would be massive, requiring support not only from management at all levels but from law enforcement, politicians, and bureaucrats. That is why it is unlikely to happen. De Ruyter eventually concluded as much, which is why he is heading off for a well-deserved vacation—somewhere out of the country, he says, beyond the reach of assassins. “I think it will be good for my health.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.