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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Looking back in anger at the Eskom debacle

OPINION

No one envies Andre De Ruyter.

As the newly appointed Eskom CEO, he has the unenviable task of trying to get the utility back on track. Where have we heard that before? Eskom’s challenges are well known and nothing is as dispiriting for business and citizens as being left in the dark - literally.

In the past week De Ruyter made mention of the many challenges Eskom faces. They are in a sense predictable but it is worth restating a few of them, such as the cost of coal, Eskom’s debt burden and (slowly) restructuring it into 3 parts.

De Ruyter clearly understands what needs to be done and one can only hope that he is left to do it.

While contemplating the challenge that is Eskom, we also hear strains of the Zondo commission in the background.

Judge Raymond Zondo is requesting an extension for his commission of inquiry into state capture. There is so much to uncover and the good judge needs more time.

The inquiry evidence has been beamed into our living rooms daily and a good part of South Africa is probably inured to what is being said. There are simply too many stories of looting and skulduggery.

A citizenry crying for accountability is finding it very difficult to appreciate the long haul, which the Zondo commission inevitably must be.

Listening to De Ruyter and the Zondo commission evidence and because Eskom is in the eye of the political and economic storm we face, one cannot help but to look back in anger.

One wants to ask, "Where is Lynne Brown?" After all, it was Brown who so arrogantly dismissed questions about Eskom at a series of parliamentary hearings and who so openly misled us about CEO Brian Molefe’s on-again, off-again resignation.

We should not forget.

In early November 2016, Molefe tearfully resigned as CEO of Eskom. His statement then said that he was doing so “voluntarily in the interests of good corporate governance”. This followed a damning state of capture report released by the Public Protector in late October that year.

In that report, it was revealed that Molefe was in regular contact with the president’s associates, the Guptas, over an extensive period. This was alleged to have included 58 phone calls to Ajay Gupta and several visits to the Guptas’ home in Saxonwold. Molefe famously denied the visits as ones to a “Saxonwold shebeen”.

So Molefe resigned then and Brown accepted his resignation. At the time her exact words were, “I am saddened by the announcement of Mr Molefe’s resignation. However, I do respect his decision to do so.”

Yet, a while later Eskom announced that Molefe “took early retirement”, in an attempt to then allow for his reinstatement, presumably? Brown told the media that reinstating Molefe was better than having to pay him the R30-million pension. This payout has subsequently been the subject of feverish litigation.

It is also worth remembering that at the heart of former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s investigation was Eskom’s contract with Tegeta, a Gupta-linked company. That contract was for the supply of coal to Eskom at grossly inflated prices.

The report found that the contract between Tegeta and Eskom potentially constituted a contravention of the board’s duty to prevent fruitless and wasteful expenditure under the Public Finance Management Act. In addition, it found that the board appeared to have been improperly appointed.

The Public Protector’s report went on to detail a tangled web between the Guptas, Molefe and the Eskom board. It also set out several instances of alleged conflicts of interest between board chair Ben Ngubane, several past and present board members and the Guptas or their associates.

Yet even after this, Ngubane and the board remained in their positions and Brown had no appetite to investigate the breaches of corporate governance at Eskom and displayed not even a semblance of curiosity to get to the bottom of allegations of corruption.

If Brown had been interested in good governance and not protecting her job and her boss, President Zuma, she would have sought to ensure that government then used its powers as majority shareholder in Eskom to fire the board and appoint members of integrity. In addition, she would have sought to clarify the glaring contradictions in respect of Molefe’s position.

Brown at the time called for a “decisive investigation” into state capture allegations. Her name has come up in evidence at the Zondo commission. She then curiously made application to cross-examine former deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas who implicated her. Brown has declined to give her side of the story, but has admitted to a relationship with the Guptas.

Her role, and that of many others, not least of all Zuma’s, should not be forgotten when we examine the parlous state Eskom is in and the cost we all now bear for fixing what has been broken and recovering what has been looted.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february