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    Drop the political intrigue and appoint a good Eskom CEO

    October 2, 2023 - Sunday Times Editoral


      After the inglorious departure from Megawatt Park of former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter in February, one might have hoped that the selection of a new boss for the state power utility would be handled with extra care and some urgency. But that does not appear to have been the case.

      This week we learnt that the utility, recently bailed out with R254bn in taxpayers' money, could be without a leader for some considerable time to come. Eskom is being run in an acting capacity by its finance chief, Calib Cassim, while the government, its board and the responsible political head, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, dance in circles.

      It's not as if the company, which has been hollowed out by state capture, corruption and political meddling, runs itself. The tasks a CEO working with the board would face are many and manifest. First, there is the matter of loadshedding, which is destroying the economy and sapping the endurance of even the most resilient South Africans. Second, there is the planned separation of Eskom into three operating units, necessary to give practical effect to the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill aimed at freeing up the market and introducing competition into the energy sector the country's huge capacity for producing renewable energy.

      Third, there is the issue of confidence, vital to Eskom bondholders and without which Eskom will find it even more difficult to tap debt markets.

      Without committed and responsible leadership, the disintegration of Eskom is likely to continue and gather pace

      But instead of the urgency necessary, South Africans are treated to a nowfamiliar pantomime of political intrigue played out against a backdrop of secrecy and hidden agendas. What was always going to be a difficult process, fraught with obstacles and sensitivities, is now a mountainous task.

      In a letter to the board of Eskom, which was leaked to Business Day this week by parties sympathetic to the board, Gordhan takes issue with the board having forwarded him one name for consideration as CEO. He is understood to be the former head of group capital, Dan Marokane. He would seem a sensible choice, especially after the De Ruyter experience suggested that parachuting a corporate player into an environment tinged with race and politics has its limitations.

      However, Gordhan has apparently rejected the board's nomination, insisting instead that it not confine itself to candidates younger than the age of 60. He also wants three names, instead of one, a rule which he says is included in Eskom's memorandum of incorporation.

      If indeed the Eskom board did not give the minister three names to forward to cabinet for consideration it must fix this, while strongly indicating its preferred candidate.

      The way the CEO matter has unfolded suggests that once again a chasm is opening up between the government as the shareholder and the board entrusted to provide guidance and leadership to the utility.

      Of course, there is much going on behind the scenes of which we know very little. And in such an environment, rumours spread like wildfire. Reports say that energy minister Gwede Mantashe has his "own candidate", and it seems obvious that in insisting on someone who would otherwise be a pensioner, Gordhan too has a preferred candidate. Where electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa stands in all this is unclear, except to remind him of the unenviable task he has to get loadshedding off all our backs.

      Without committed and responsible leadership, the disintegration of Eskom is likely to continue and gather pace. All the grand plans for its revival will come to nothing if things are not sorted out at the top first.

      Where, in all of this, is President Cyril Ramaphosa, to whom cabinet ministers are meant to report? Is he not concerned that the process to get the country's largest and most important utility back on track is being muddied? Is fixing Eskom not a priority for his government?

      Ministerial responsibility and autonomy are important but so too is providing leadership and putting one's foot down. Ramaphosa should be demanding that Gordhan (and any other ministers involved) stop playing games and put Eskom and the country first. And act with the required urgency.


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