Boss of South African power producer Eskom survived poisoning attempt in December

The chief executive of South Africa’s troubled Eskom state power monopoly survived an alleged attempt to kill him with cyanide-laced coffee last month, shortly after submitting his resignation.

The alleged attempt to poison André de Ruyter took place before it was widely known he had resigned, according to people familiar with the details. De Ruyter drank a cup of coffee laced with cyanide on December 12, the people said.

Pravin Gordhan, the minister overseeing Eskom and other state companies, on Saturday confirmed that de Ruyter had informed him of the alleged attempt to poison him. “This attempt on his life will be thoroughly investigated and those responsible must be charged,” Gordhan said.

Eskom said that it “cannot comment further on the poisoning incident involving the chief executive, which occurred during December 2022, as the matter is subject to police investigation”.

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

The timing of the incident indicates that those allegedly seeking to warn de Ruyter or kill him may not have known he had already quit. The coffee machine at Eskom’s Johannesburg headquarters was out of service, according to people briefed on the incident, but he was served the drink from a different source using his usual mug. He immediately felt nauseous and confused, forgetting familiar words.

De Ruyter had sought to turn round Eskom by taking on alleged criminal syndicates that have been draining the state utility through corrupt coal and other contracts. He has blamed a lack of support from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government for his resignation, amid a battle to stem the worst-ever blackouts in Africa’s most industrialized nation and tackle rampant graft within the company.

The alleged poisoning underscores the threat to the government’s campaign to root out corruption from South Africa’s state-owned companies. Ramaphosa strengthened his grip on the ruling African National Congress in December with his re-election as leader despite a damaging scandal over a theft at his private game farm.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance said on Sunday that “not only has de Ruyter been left out to dry amid ANC shenanigans but now criminal syndicates within Eskom are palpably hell-bent on cementing their stranglehold on Eskom that is destroying the economy . . . firm and decisive action needs to be taken now”.

South Africa’s EE Business Intelligence first reported on Saturday that de Ruyter had fallen violently ill after drinking coffee at Eskom’s headquarters and been rushed to medical facilities where doctors found he had high levels of cyanide in his blood. De Ruyter told the publication: “I have reported the matter to [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 single-biggest threat to the South African economy and to the ANC’s decades-long grip on power ahead of national elections next year.

In 2022 South Africans endured twice as many power outages as the year before as breakdowns increased at Eskom’s fleet of aging coal power stations. Newer coal-fired plants also constantly malfunction. The power cuts continued throughout South Africa’s holiday season and into the new year.

De Ruyter made many enemies after his appointment in late 2019, as he launched investigations into alleged criminal syndicates that he accused of worsening the blackouts by pilfering supplies from coal power stations and sabotaging attempts to fix problems. He is protected at all times by a bodyguard, as are other executives and some power station operators at the company.

“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 stations are located. “We’ve contractor had shot in their cars on the way to site because they didn’t give jobs to the right people.”

The alleged attempt to murder or frighten de Ruyter “shows the intense battle between those who want South Africa to work and thrive; and those who want to corruptly enrich themselves”, Gordhan said.

A plan to split 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 of reducing state control and privatizing the energy sector.

In delayed annual statements released last month, Eskom’s auditors warned of “significant control deficiencies” in the supply of coal, fuel and parts to power stations. In one incident, the auditors added, key documents that they had requested “were purposefully destroyed in a fire”.

South Africa has experienced a marked increase in politically linked killings in recent years, from ANC politicians to state officials and anti-graft whistleblowers. Activists have warned of the spread of assassinations as reprisals for probes into corruption and threats to patronage networks.