The head of South African energy producer Eskom survived a poisoning attempt in December

The head of South African energy producer Eskom survived a poisoning attempt in December
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The chief executive of South Africa’s troubled state energy monopoly Eskom survived an alleged attempt to kill him with cyanide coffee last month, shortly after submitting his resignation.

The alleged attempted poisoning Andre de Ruyter it took place before it was known that he had resigned, according to people familiar with the details. De Ruyter drank a cup of cyanide-laced coffee on Dec. 12, the people said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main opposition Democratic Alliance said on Sunday that “de Ruyter has not only been left dry amidst ANC shenanigans, but now the criminal syndicates within Eskom are clearly hell-bent on cementing their dominance over Eskom which is destroying the economy. . . it is necessary to take firm and decisive action now.”

South Africa’s EE Business Intelligence first reported on Saturday that de Ruyter had fallen seriously ill after drinking coffee at Eskom’s headquarters and was 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 it can be assumed that the case is under investigation.”

The Eskom crisis is seen as the biggest threat to the South African economy and to the ANC’s hold on power for decades before next year’s national elections.

In 2022, South Africans suffered twice as many power outages as the previous year as failures increased at Eskom’s fleet of aging coal-fired power plants. Newer coal plants are also constantly malfunctioning. Power outages continued through the South African Christmas season and into the new year.

De Ruyter made many enemies after his appointment in late 2019, when he launched investigations into alleged criminal syndicates he accused of making blackouts worse by stealing supplies from coal-fired power plants and sabotaging attempts to fix the problems. He is protected at all times by a bodyguard, as are other executives and some of the company’s plant operators.

“Make no mistake, Mpumalanga is a mafia province,” de Ruyter told the FT in October, referring to the coal-producing region where many of Eskom’s power plants are located. “We’ve had contractors shot in their cars on the way to the site because they didn’t hire the right people.”

The alleged attempt to kill or scare De Ruyter “shows the intense battle between those who want South Africa to work and prosper; and those who want to corruptly enrich themselves,” Gordhan said.

Some ANC members have opposed a plan to break up heavily indebted Eskom into separate generation, transmission and distribution units, seeing it as a way to reduce state control and privatize the power sector.

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

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

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