/ 28 April 2023

ANC strikes first, sues De Ruyter

De Ruyter22
Former Eskom chief executive Andre de Ruyter. (Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The ANC filed court papers to sue André de Ruyter for defamation on the same day he appeared before a parliamentary committee to explain his allegations that at least one cabinet minister knew that ANC members were involved in industrial-scale corruption at Eskom.

The former Eskom chief executive declined to name the minister to whom he had raised concerns about the involvement of a senior ANC politician in graft at the power utility. This minister then allegedly turned to a colleague and said he supposed it was inevitable that this information would emerge. 

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan has long since conceded that he was the minister in question, but claimed he could not remember whether he replied as De Ruyter has suggested he had. 

Still, members of the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) were relentless in their attempts to get De Ruyter to publicly identify the minister.

Responding to ANC Scopa member Bheki Hadebe, De Ruyter said: “I don’t think it will be appropriate for me to divulge the name of that minister, as it [shouldn’t] be construed as that person condoning it.”

Nor would he identify the politician who was allegedly involved in directing criminal cartels at the power utility. De Ruyter noted that he did not enjoy parliamentary immunity and that the exchange with MPs was taking place against a highly litigious backdrop. 

Moreover, he said he did not want to defeat the ends of justice by inadvertently disclosing information that was the subject of a criminal investigation. Scopa would be better placed to leave it to the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) to decide how much they could disclose of information that he reported to them. 

The same went for the name of the minister who allegedly told him he had to make allowances when De Ruyter raised concerns about attempts to water down governance regarding $8.5 billion secured at COP26 for South Africa’s just energy transition.

What he did tell the Scopa was that he regularly talked to Gordhan and presidential security adviser Sydney Mufamadi about corruption and crime at Eskom, and had briefed both last year about an intelligence-led internal investigation into cartels plundering the power utility.

“They were informed. They knew,” he said.

Gordhan and Mufamadi are due to appear before MPs next week.

De Ruyter also stressed that he had complied with the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, contrary to the ANC’s contention that he had flouted the reporting duty the Act imposed on him in relation to corruption involving more than R100 000, and said internally more than a hundred instances of corruption had been reported to Eskom.

The information had led to arrests and raids by the Hawks on sites where coal supplies were corrupted. 

Returning to his assessment that corruption cost Eskom about R1  billion a month, De Ruyter told the Scopa committee that this may be a conservative calculation. He had arrived at that figure by extrapolation when adding up losses caused by fuel theft, sabotage and procurement fraud.

De Ruyter first referred to his troubling exchanges with ministers — single or plural, it is not quite clear — and the allegations of the ruling party’s involvement in corruption at Eskom in an explosive television interview in February.

He told eNCA’s Annika Larsen the minister’s response to his concerns regarding the concessional funding was “essentially, you know, you have to be pragmatic, you have to, in order to pursue the greater good, you have to enable some people to eat a little bit”.

In the same interview, he added: “So when we pointed out that there was one particular high-level politician that was involved in this, the minister in question looked at a senior official and said, ‘I guess it was inevitable that it would come out anyway’, which suggests this was not news.”

Asked by Larsen whether he would agree that Eskom was a “feeding trough” for the ruling party, De Ruyter said evidence suggested this was so.

The ANC promptly vowed to sue De Ruyter for defamation, but did not make good on the threat until this week, saying they had difficulty locating him to serve papers.

Eskom had declined to help in this regard, saying he did not leave a forwarding address when he left the company.

The Scopa sitting was his first public appearance since the eNCA interview, to which Eskom responded by immediately relieving him of his duties a month before the end of his notice period with the company.

He was speaking on a virtual link from an undisclosed location, but the papers the ANC filed to the Pretoria high court plainly state his address in Europe.

In part A of its application, the ANC is seeking permission for an edictal citation — applicable where the defendant is in a foreign jurisdiction. It has been placed on the urgent court roll for hearing on Wednesday, 3 May.

In part B, it asks that the court declares his claim that the party benefits from corruption at Eskom defamatory and directs De Ruyter to issue a retraction and apology. 

In a supporting affidavit, ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula said the sentiments expressed would lower the esteem in which the party was held by “any reasonable listener” and risked costing it votes.

“The ANC has a right to its good name and reputation. It has a right to protect its reputation,” he said.

“This is necessary to ensure that its prospects of attracting voters during local and national elections are not adversely affected because voters perceive it to be a corrupt political party, and, thus, not worth voting for.” 

Mbalula implored the court to apply the standard of the average listener who would not, he said, apply a sophisticated level of analysis to the views aired by the former Eskom chief executive.

He said the statements made in the interview were demonstrably false, adding that the party had asked De Ruyter to provide evidence to support what he said and that he had failed to do so.

Mbalula further suggested that the then outgoing chief executive’s prudence in the interview to name names “shows knowledge of wrongfulness and intention to defame the ANC but not individual government officials or politicians”. 

The ANC has briefed one of the country’s most prominent senior counsel, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, to represent it in the defamation suit.

Mbalula said the party had to resort to employing a tracing agent to establish De Ruyter’s whereabouts after its initial attempts to serve papers were frustrated by the fact that he had left the country.

De Ruyter said in the eNCA interview that he planned to leave South Africa for a while, after confirming that he had survived cyanide poisoning at Eskom’s headquarters the day after he submitted his resignation.

It is not clear why the ANC had to go to such lengths because parliament has for some time been communicating with De Ruyter through his lawyers.

“The tracing agent informed the ANC that the respondent has left South Africa and now resides in Germany,” Mbalula wrote.

The ANC initially intended to demand damages from De Ruyter, but in his affidavit, Mbalula said: “The integrity of the ANC was being undermined on the basis of its alleged corrupt conduct.

“In the circumstances, an award of damages, in due course, can hardly be said to be a viable and compelling alternative to a declarator declaring that the statement was defamatory and unlawful.”

The party is asking the court to award costs against De Ruyter.