The chief executive of South Africa’s ailing state power monopoly Eskom survived an alleged attempt to kill him with cyanide-laced coffee last month shortly after handing in his resignation.
The alleged poison experiment André de Ruyter took place before it became public knowledge that he had resigned, according to people familiar with the details. De Ruyter drank a cyanide-laced cup of coffee on Dec. 12, the people said.
Pravin Gordhan, the minister overseeing Eskom and other state-owned companies, confirmed Saturday that de Ruyter informed him of the alleged attempt to poison him. “This attempt on his life is being thoroughly investigated and those responsible must be brought to justice,” Gordhan said.
Eskom said it “cannot make any further comments on the CEO poisoning incident that occurred in December 2022 as the matter is the subject of a police investigation.”
De Ruyter, who will remain so Eskom The chief executive did not respond to a request for comment until the end of March while a replacement is being found.
The timing of the incident suggests that those who allegedly wanted to warn or kill de Ruyter might not have known that he had already resigned. The coffee maker at Eskom’s Johannesburg headquarters was out of order, according to people who were briefed on the incident, but he was served the drink from another source with his usual mug. He was immediately nauseous and confused, forgetting familiar words.
De Ruyter had tried to turn around Eskom by taking over suspected criminal syndicates that have drained government supplies through corrupt coal and other contracts. He has blamed a lack of support from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government for his resignation amid a struggle to stem the worst power outages in Africa’s most industrialized country and to crack down on rampant bribery within the company.
The alleged poisoning underscores the threat to the government’s campaign to root out corruption in South Africa’s state-owned companies. Ramaphosa strengthened his grip on the ruling African National Congress in December his re-election as chairman despite a damaging scandal involving a theft at his private game farm.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance said Sunday that “not only was de Ruyter left to dry amid ANC phenomena, but now criminal syndicates within Eskom are visibly hell-bent on tightening their stranglehold on Eskom, which is destroying the economy. ” . . Strong and determined action must be taken now.”
South Africa’s EE Business Intelligence first reported on Saturday that de Ruyter became seriously ill after drinking coffee at Eskom’s headquarters and was taken to medical facilities where doctors found high levels of cyanide in his blood. De Ruyter told the publication: “I have reported the matter [the South African police] on January 5, 2023 and the case can be assumed to be under investigation.”
Eskom’s crisis is seen as the greatest threat to South Africa’s economy and the ANC’s decade-long grip on power ahead of next year’s national elections.
In 2022, South Africa experienced twice as many power outages as the previous year as outages at Eskom’s fleet of legacy coal-fired power plants increased. Even newer coal-fired power plants are constantly failing. The power outages continued throughout the South African holiday season and into the New Year.
De Ruyter made many enemies after his appointment in late 2019 when he launched investigations into suspected criminal syndicates he accused of making blackouts worse by stealing supplies from coal-fired power plants and sabotaging attempts to fix problems. He, like other company executives and some of the company’s power plant operators, is protected by a bodyguard at all times.
“Make no mistake, Mpumalanga is a gangster province,” de Ruyter told the FT in October, referring to the coal-producing region where many of Eskom’s power plants are located. “On the way to the construction site, contractors were shot in their cars for not providing the right people with jobs.”
The alleged attempt to assassinate or scare de Ruyter “depicts the intense struggle between those who want South Africa to function and thrive; and those who want to enrich themselves through corruption,” said Gordhan.
A plan to split the heavily indebted Eskom into separate generation, transmission and distribution units has been opposed by some members of the ANC, who see it as a way to reduce government control and privatize the energy sector.
In belated financial statements released last month, Eskom’s auditors warned of “significant control failures” in the supply of coal, fuel and parts to power plants. In one incident, auditors added, key documents they requested were “deliberately destroyed in a fire.”
South Africa has seen a significant rise in politically-related killings in recent years, from ANC politicians to state officials and anti-graft whistleblowers. Activists have warned of the spread of attacks in retaliation for investigations into corruption and threats to patronage networks.