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Eskom boss told police he survived the December assassination attempt

Eskom boss told police he survived the December assassination attempt

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The head of South Africa’s state power monopoly Eskom told police he survived an attempt to kill him with cyanide-laced coffee, according to a government minister.

André de Ruyter was reportedly targeted a day after he handed in his resignation from the blackout-prone utility last month, shortly before his departure was made public. He blamed the lack of support within President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government to deal with the worst-ever blackouts in Africa’s most industrialized nation and rampant bribery within the company.

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 told the Financial Times.

De Ruyter, who will remain as Eskom chief executive until the end of March while a replacement is found, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The alleged poisoning underscores the threat of a campaign by Ramaphosa to root out corruption in South Africa’s state-owned enterprises, the linchpins of the economy, even after he strengthened his grip on the ruling African National Congress by being re-elected as chairman in December.

South Africa’s EE Business Intelligence first reported on Saturday that de Ruyter had become seriously ill after drinking coffee at Eskom’s headquarters and was taken to doctors who found he had elevated cyanide levels.

De Ruyter told the publication: “I have reported the matter [the South African police] on January 5, 2023 and the case can be understood 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 Africans suffered twice as many power outages as the year before, when Eskom’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants suffered outages. Even newer coal-fired power plants are constantly failing. The power outages continued throughout South Africa’s 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 is protected by a bodyguard at all times, as are other senior executives and even some of the company’s power plant operators.

“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 giving jobs to the right people.”

The alleged attempt to assassinate de Ruyter “depicts the intense struggle between those who want South Africa to function and thrive; and those who want to enrich themselves corruptly,” Gordhan said.

Heavily indebted Eskom is struggling to fund maintenance of the facilities and replenish the diesel needed for emergency power reserves.

In belated financial statements released last month, Eskom’s auditors warned of “significant control failures” in the delivery of coal, fuel and spare parts to power plants. In one incident, investigators added, key documents were “deliberately destroyed in a fire” after they requested them.

South Africa has seen a significant rise in politically-related killings in recent years, from ANC politicians to state officials and anti-bribery whistleblowers. Activists have warned of the spread of attacks in retaliation for investigations into corruption and threats to patronage networks.

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