The chief executive of South Africa’s power utility Eskom survived an alleged attempt to kill him with cyanide-laced coffee last month, shortly after he tendered his resignation.
The assassination attempt on André de Ruyter came before it was known that he had resigned, according to people familiar with the matter. De Ruyter drank a cup of coffee laced with cyanide on Dec. 12, people said.
Pravin Gordhan, the minister in charge of Eskom and other state-owned companies, on Saturday confirmed that de Ruyter had spoken to him about the alleged attack on him. “This attempt on his life will be thoroughly investigated and those responsible will be prosecuted,” Gordhan said.
Eskom said it “cannot comment further on the poisoning of the chief executive, which occurred in December 2022, as the matter is being investigated by the police”.
De Ruyter, who will remain Eskom CEO until the end of March while a replacement is found, did not respond to a request for comment.
The timing of the incident suggests that those suspected of trying to warn de Ruyter or kill him may not have known he had stopped. The coffee machine at Eskom’s Johannesburg headquarters was not working, people briefed on the incident said, but he was served a drink from another source using his old car. He still felt nauseous and confused, forgetting familiar words.
De Ruyter sought to turn around Eskom by attacking the corrupt syndicates that were undermining the government’s operations through bad coal and other contracts. He blamed the lack of support from the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa for his resignation, in the fight to prevent the worst diseases in the most industrialized African nation, and to cut jobs bad in the company.
The accusation of poisoning reflects the anger at the government’s plan to eradicate corruption from South African state-owned companies. Ramaphosa regained control of the African National Congress in December and was re-elected as leader despite a scandal over the theft of his private game farm.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance said on Sunday that “de Ruyter has not withered away from the ANC but now the criminal gangs in Eskom are really trying to strengthen themselves ties to Eskom which is destroying the economy… we need to take firm action and make a decision now”.
South Africa’s EE Business Intelligence first reported on Saturday that de Ruyter fell ill after drinking coffee at Eskom’s headquarters and was taken to hospital where doctors found him seriously ill. cyanide in his blood. De Ruyter said to the media: “I have read the case to [the South African police] on January 5 2023, and it can be said that the case is under investigation.”
The Eskom crisis is the biggest threat to South Africa’s economy and the ANC’s decade-long bid to power ahead of next year’s national elections.
By 2022, South Africa’s power outages will double last year as breakdowns at Eskom’s old coal-fired power stations increase. New coal plants will always break down. Power cuts continued throughout the South African holiday season and into the new year.
De Ruyter made many enemies after his nomination in late 2019, when he investigated the alleged criminal gangs he accused of harming black people by extorting money from coal-fired power stations and stalling attempts to fix the problem. He is protected by a security guard at all times, as are other managers and some of the company’s electrical operators.
“Don’t mistake Mpumalanga for being a gangster state,” de Ruyter told the FT in October, referring to the coal-producing region where many of Eskom’s power stations are located. “We’ve shot contractors in their cars on the way to the site because they didn’t give work to the right people.”
The allegation of murdering or threatening de Ruyter “reveals a strong conflict between those who want South Africa to work and survive; and those who want to enrich themselves”, said Gordhan.
The plan to split the heavily indebted Eskom into separate generation, transmission and distribution units has been criticized by some ANC members who say it is a way to reduce government control and threat to the power sector.
In long-awaited annual statements released last month, Eskom’s auditors warned of “management weaknesses” in the supply of coal, fuel and components to power stations. In one incident, investigators said, the key documents they requested were “totally destroyed in the fire”.
South Africa has seen a sharp rise in politically-linked murders in recent years, from ANC politicians to government officials and anti-graft activists. Activists have warned of the spread of murders in retaliation for investigations into corruption and threats to support networks.