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Who is spying on André de Ruyter?

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This interview was originally aired on RSG Geldsake and has been translated into English in this transcript.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: André de Ruyter joins me now. He is the chief executive of Eskom. André, a warm welcome to the programme. First, I see we are back on Stage 4 load shedding. What happened?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: Ryk, just after five o’clock [on Tuesday, 4 October] we unfortunately lost two large units in quick succession, one at Kendal and one at Lethabo, and this forced us to move from Stage 3 to Stage 4.

We had only the requisite generation capacity; we no longer had enough to meet demand.

At present we have about 7 100MW on planned maintenance, which is equivalent to two large power stations and is for essential maintenance, and then we have about 14 000MW out on unplanned maintenance as a result of units that broke down.

Read: No end in sight as load shedding nightmare worsens

So the situation is of course very fragile with regard to the availability of generation capacity, but that is unfortunately the situation, together with exceptionally hot weather, with the consequence that our cooling systems are not working as well as they should.

However, we aren’t looking for excuses. We are looking for more generation capacity.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: To continue, we have experienced the worst load shedding seen so far. Was it caused by a ‘perfect storm’ or are your power stations currently just extremely unreliable?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: Ryk, there is a combination of several circumstances.

In the first place, as I’ve said previously, our power stations are old and they are fragile. The new power stations – Medupi is running well, and with Kusile we have had a considerable number of problems, with stuttering units that are not working as they should. So we simply don’t have the reserve capacity that we would wish to have.

Listeners may remember, when I had just started [at Eskom] I noted that we needed to add 4 000 to 6 000MW capacity to give us the necessary space to do maintenance.

Unfortunately we have not made sufficient progress to date and as a consequence we are in a very distressed situation with respect to our generation capacity.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: But do you foresee a return to ‘normality’ at any time, and that we won’t have to see Stage 3, 4 or 5 load shedding; no more than Stage 2?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: We are busy with planned maintenance and looking at large units that will return to service on the grid within the next 10 days, which should give some relief.

But one has to remember that the units are old, they are unreliable, and the definition of an unplanned breakdown is that it happens without warning. That is why we now find ourselves in a situation that necessitates load shedding.

The other reason of course is that we have to protect critical reserves; we have to ensure that we make provision in case more units break down, so that we can put that capacity on the network as quickly as possible.

That involves our diesel turbines at Ankerlig and Gourikwa, as well as the pumped hydro schemes which we need to preserve and protect. Thus the load shedding.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: In the recent past there have been various worrying events that have contributed to the situation. Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan has reiterated that sabotage is a huge problem. How much does sabotage contribute to the current load shedding?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: That of course is very difficult to prove, no doubt, because if someone commits sabotage they do it with the idea of making it very difficult to trace.

I would be reluctant to say it is definitely sabotage without having clear evidence, but where I do agree with the minister is that there have been a number of events that are very difficult to explain.

The entire Camden Power Station, where we lost 1 400MW, was the result of the coincidental opening of a valve with a single failure point at the wrong moment, which contaminated the entire plant’s cooling water.

There are too many such incidents.

We will investigate whether they are attributable to negligence. We have called the police in, as well as other state security agencies, for a thorough investigation.

Read: Saboteurs threaten to exacerbate South Africa’s power blackouts

I have been in contact with high-ranking staff at these agencies, and we will take off the gloves when it comes not only to disciplinary action, but also to security investigations in order to get a grip on this situation.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: I am sure you don’t need that [hassle]. But the other disturbing news that has come out is that you found an eavesdropping device in your car. Have you found out what precisely this device is able to do, and who put it there?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: Ryk, a device like that was indeed found. I handed it over to my security consultants, a company managed by George Fivas, the former police commissioner. I gave it to them and they are busy looking into it.

Let us provisionally say that it is a device that can eavesdrop and pinpoint one’s location.

It is rather concerning when something like that happens, and it’s also concerning that someone thought it a good idea to follow me and listen to what I say. But I suppose that comes with the job and we have to continue doing what we do.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: A so-called acquaintance said it looked like an AA remote for a motorised gate or a garage – but you have already determined that this thing can do much, much more than basically open a gate?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: Yes. Clever people who can look at a photo without examining the apparatus itself, and without knowing what the microchip can do, make me smile. They have a right to make such intelligent comments without examining it themselves [but] I put my faith in people I trust and who I believe have the necessary expertise.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Many discussions are taking place relating to skills within Eskom. The Solidary trade union handed a list of names of experienced people to the minister, and some were appointed at Eskom. But what is the skills situation on the ground with the appointment of people to fill particular gaps?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: Ryk, we certainly do have a skills deficit, there is no doubt.

When I visited Camden on Friday I walked the floor with some of the management and it was pretty clear that although there is no shortage of qualifications, there is a lack of knowledge and experience to understand the elements that need addressing if you want to properly manage a power station.

That is very concerning when one looks at things such as housekeeping.

People working in factories know that housekeeping is absolutely critical; if you have a filthy plant you can’t have a safe, productive plant.

So that’s where it all starts – with the basics. And those are absent.

We are busy bringing people back, as you said. Of course we have to approach things in a way that is fair to all, so what we did, among other things, is to take Solidarity’s list and consolidate it in a broader database so we can act representatively.

We have also created a platform where interested persons can present their CVs, so that we can use their services should we have a need for them.

That is currently taking place.

Unfortunately, with all the rules and regulations governing us, things take longer than we would wish, but we are definitely getting more skills into the organisation.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: A month or so ago you announced that you might wish to buy supplementary power from private producers to help increase the electricity available. Were you able to conclude any such contracts and buy more electricity from private producers?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: Yes, we have. We have already begun to buy power from countries like Zambia.

We are looking into Mozambique, and we are also setting up contracts with the private sector where they have additional electricity capacity available, so as to add to the grid.

We are doing everything we can to add additional megawatts. But as one looks at what is available compared to the shortfall, it is a proverbial drop in the ocean.

It’s not sufficient to prevent load shedding. But we are investigating every megawatt we can get our hands on.

Read:
Eskom’s power purchase plan: Will business have the excess capacity needed?
Eskom to procure emergency additional energy to ease load shedding

RYK VAN NIEKERK: When do you anticipate that new private suppliers or plants will be able to deliver electricity, because we have seen various claims recently that it is much easier to build these plants [than fix them], but it takes some time to get them built. When do you expect new connections to produce additional electricity?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: Just today [Tuesday] I was looking at the number of projects in the pipeline.

About 6 000MW of renewable projects are responding to the president’s relaxation of the licensing rules for self-generation, so that’s very positive.

But it will probably take another good 18 to 24 months before that capacity joins the grid.

We are planning to sign that land-lease agreement on 14 October, which will add an additional 2 000MW to the system as a first step.

The units first have to be built, which means a delay of 18 months to two years.

Read:

Then there are large coal companies, ironically Seriti, which has begun to plough back the good profits from legitimate coal exports into a huge wind farm to be erected near one of our power stations, Tutuka. That will also bring relief. So projects are in the pipeline.

People of course don’t want to hear that electricity is on the way; they want it now.

But there are many things that should have taken place long ago that are now eventually going to take place, but which unfortunately take time to add to the network.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: The minister recently appointed a new board for Eskom. On paper it seems a very, very good board with diverse and relevant skills. But the board needs to basically decide on your future. Have you met with it and discussed your role at Eskom going ahead?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: A meeting took place this week, the first board meeting. That was more a meeting to meet everyone. I don’t want to speak too much outside of the boardroom. I have a confidential relationship to protect.

But at this point I’m still determined, I’m keeping my head down and doing my job as best I can.

If the board or the minister decide otherwise, so be it. I’m fairly philosophical about it, but I won’t be derailed by uncertainty. That would be wrong in the circumstances.

Listen: Will Eskom’s new board be the light we’re looking for?
Read: Eskom’s new chairman says management to get ‘benefit of the doubt’

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Finally, I can hear you are very, very tired. But how are you, and are you holding your chin up?

ANDRÉ de RUYTER: Oh yes, at Eskom you learn to look straight ahead and do what you can. The task is difficult, but it’s also a very important task. In fact I have just had a meeting with a group of German financiers very eager to support us, and positive meetings like that give one hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: André, thank you very much for your time tonight, and much strength to your arm. That was Eskom CEO André de Ruyter. We are looking forward to that bright light at the end of the tunnel.

Read: SA submits new climate plan to win R151.2bn for coal switch

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