/ 7 June 2023

How Eskom’s ‘besieged’ execs talk to the public

Mpho Eskom Getty
Eskom board chairperson Mpho Makwana. Photo: Getty Images

“Besieged” is the word the Eskom’s former board chairperson Malegapuru Makgoba used to refer to the ailing power utility when he appeared before the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) last month. It is a word that describes what many South Africans may be feeling, with the power crisis only one of the range of threats seeming to surround us, alongside the stagnant economy, a falling rand, struggles with water supply and quality, and concerns over diplomatic missteps relating to Russia’s war in Ukraine. But the fact that Eskom’s corruption is coming to light gives hope that we can withstand this siege.

My investigations into the words associated with Eskom in May’s online news coverage show the almost intractable tangle of allegations and counter-allegations surrounding the utility. Using a database of top daily news articles from IOL, News24 and TimesLive throughout the month, I have looked for insights into the language used to describe Eskom’s crisis and the ways in which the utility’s management have divided into opposing camps. As a linguist and not an investigative journalist, I am grateful that it is not my job to find the truth of who is to blame for the utility’s troubles. Instead, I simply point out how the language shows the opposing alignments of those embroiled in the crisis.

The word “besieged” was statistically associated strongly with Eskom in my database because Makgoba said that Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan encouraged former chief executive André de Ruyter to gather intelligence on corruption in Eskom “because of the way Eskom was besieged”. Gordhan has since denied that he did this.

De Ruyter did commission a privately-funded intelligence-gathering operation, named “Project Ostrich”. He spoke from the results of this investigation in his watershed February interview with eNCA just before he was relieved of his duties, in which he alleged that at least one senior ANC government official was involved in looting from the utility. One of the main funders of Project Ostrich was Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA), whose chief executive, Busisiwe Mavuso, is also a former Eskom board member.

The circumstances of De Ruyter’s axing hinge on another word that was closely associated with Eskom in May’s news: “broader”.  Current Eskom board chairperson Mpho Makwana said De Ruyter was relieved of his duties a month early because “it became clear during the notice period that he was no longer interested in the broader good of Eskom”. Meanwhile, he “warned against ‘a broad view’ that sought to position De Ruyter as a victim and a whistle-blower.”  

Clearly, “broad” is one of Makwana’s favourite words. In linguistic terms, I would call the word “broad” a softener, a word that blurs the boundaries of the meaning of the word it modifies. Using this word would help Makwana out of a tight spot if he was pressed for specifics about what constitutes the “good of Eskom”. I am not sure about what Makwana sees as being “broad” about the view that De Ruyter is a victim and a whistleblower, but clearly he has an interest in trying to discredit this view.

Many of the other words closely associated with Eskom draw the battle lines between De Ruyter on the one hand and Makwana on the other.  Both “André” and “CEO” appear on the list, as do “Mpho”, “Makwana” and “chair”, referring to Makwana’s job at Eskom. There is clearly no love lost between these two men. The Sunday Times reported on how De Ruyter, in his book Truth to Power, accuses Makwana of being a “go-slow chairman”, who would “sit on letters and documents for months”. He says that he treated chief operations officer Jan Oberholzer with “galling disrespect”. In another part of the book, quoted by News24, De Ruyter describes Makwana’s reaction to news of his suspected poisoning in December: “‘Sad to hear,’ he texted me, as though my hamster had died.”

The word “board” is also strongly associated with Eskom in May’s news, with the board depicted as swinging from aligning with De Ruyter to firing him. The IOL reports that in April last year, Mavuso, who was then a member of the board, “absolved the board and De Ruyter for Eskom’s failures, saying it was the ANC-government that had ‘messed up’ the power utility”. Makgoba, the previous board chairperson, defended De Ruyter before Scopa for commissioning Project Ostrich

When Makwana replaced Makgoba in October last year, he initially supported De Ruyter.  But just four months later, the Eskom board fired De Ruyter. Makwana said “the board did what any board would have done when a CEO no longer serves the best interest of that board.” Meanwhile, De Ruyter criticised the board for “interfering in operations and doling out instructions to employees, bypassing their line managers and Eskom executives”.

The word “breach”, also strongly associated with Eskom in May’s news, was used by Scopa chairperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa to criticise De Ruyter and Mavuso for Project Ostrich. He said, “It’s in breach of fiduciary responsibility,” and “The report may constitute a breach of Eskom’s own security and up to now you still don’t know where it starts and ends.”

But Scopa also had harsh words for Eskom’s board, with Hlengwa saying, “Here’s your CEO going publicly making these allegations and the default position is to resign him. He was fired, that’s what it is, but that’s the board’s decision. But the issue is did you test the allegations that he made?

One last word with strong associations with Eskom in May’s news will strike a chord with besieged South Africans: “winter”. Five times in five different top news articles, Eskom or Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa warned that this winter will be an extremely difficult time, with a strong possibility of stage eight or even stage 10 load-shedding. It is common cause that the corruption at Eskom has exacerbated this load-shedding, with De Ruyter saying, “If pushed, I would probably venture that around two stages of load-shedding could be ascribed to sabotage, theft and corruption.”  Given the awful, wasteful human cost of load-shedding to our country, it is crucial that the truth about this corruption come out and that those who have contributed to it be prosecuted, no matter how high up in government they are.

For a few days I have been groping around for some glimmer of hope with which to end this article. What can encourage us is this: we have a diverse and independent media that brings corruption to light, as even President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged last month.  The World Press Freedom Index ranks us as having the 25th most free media out of 180 countries. The fact that we know even as much as we do about the corruption at Eskom can give us hope that we will outlast this winter siege.

Ian Siebörger is a senior lecturer in the department of linguistics and applied language studies in the faculty of humanities at Rhodes University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.