On Wednesday, state-owned power utility Eskom announced it had appointed veteran journalist Sikonathi Mantshantsha as its new spokesperson. We caught up with Mantshantsha on Thursday and spoke about his expectations in the new role and how it would weigh up with his dedication to exposing the truth many Eskom executives would rather have kept hidden over the years - and discovered a surprising story about how he became a journalist 'by accident'.
Q: You have been described as one of Eskom’s fiercest critics, and indeed your published works include numerous exposés on maladministration at the power utility. Your new role will effectively place you at the forefront of managing media fallout from such reports, and the numerous crises hanging over Eskom. Have you given thought to how you may approach the job, working for a SOE you spent years investigating and reporting on?
A: I have indeed spent the past 15 years writing about, and indeed criticising Eskom when the situation called for such an approach (which it did a lot more than the other way). That kind of work, together with all the work done by many other journalists in almost all the media houses, and civil society activists in South Africa, has helped bring about some positive changes in the management of the utility and other companies under the control of the state.
That was our contribution, from the outside. Now the task I have accepted is to help contribute to rebuilding the institution - from the inside. I have only one job to do: to truthfully and frankly tell the people of South Africa the exact state of the utility, and to help rebuild the trust with all stakeholders.
Q: Some readers may not know about how you came to work in journalism. Tell us your story. What drew you to journalism, and how did it come about that Eskom became one of your main areas of focus?
A: I came into journalism purely by accident. I had just lost my job at UBS Investment Bank (and Brait Merchant Bank before that), and on the verge of moving to London (young enough then to go under the Working Holiday Visa Scheme for Commonwealth countries).
I accepted a temporary assignment (meant to be for two weeks) as a data capturer at Media24, Who's Who of Southern Africa. A day later I was offered employment as Chief Editorial Researcher.
Just over a year later, when Who's Who needed to restructure and lose all our jobs in 2005, I went one floor down and approached the editor of Finweek (then Finance Week, Fin24 and Finansies & Tegniek) for ANY job.
Rikus Delport took a chance on me and hired me as Editorial Assistant to his team, where I helped with drawing the share price graphs and phoning people for photographs and helped with other admin work.
Three weeks later I interviewed an executive from Tsebo Outsourcing and wrote the story just for the fun of it. Surprisingly, Rikus Delport published it in Finweek. Thus I had a new career! And great colleagues who took me under their wings and were generous with advice and all kinds of support.
Q: Are you expecting any backlash from former Eskom executives whom you have been particularly vocal about, such as the Matshela Kokos and Brian Molefes of the world? There is no love lost between you and these individuals - how do you plan to handle them? Will it be the whip and the truth, or a more delicate approach?
A: I just expect to get on with my job.
Q: I have worked with you in the past, and have experienced firsthand that you have no time for people who are economical with the truth. Government spin doctors are often placed in a position where they must make the best of a very bad situation, and in turn, spin the narrative to something more palatable. Your disdain for repeated narratives and non-answers has been on clear display at numerous press conferences. How will you carry this spirit and commitment to the truth, however ugly it may be, with you? Do you think your intimate knowledge of how Eskom functions, or rather, is supposed to function, will help you here?
A: I have been asked to help Eskom tell its true story to the people and the market. That's what I intend doing. It helps that I have a good understanding of the business.
Q: The previous spokesperson, Khulu Phasiwe, spoke once about the long hours, sometimes 5am to 10pm, and the stresses involved in speaking on behalf of Eskom. You are no stranger to hard work and long hours, but is the prospect daunting?
A: As you know, I have only ever worked long and unusual hours, doing the most unpleasant work most of the time. This will be equally interesting.
Q: When you are not at the keyboard penning one of your insightful and scathing pieces, what do you do to unwind?
A: I read books and watch some documentaries, particularly on historical matters. I enjoy a hike or two, and gym, when the time allows.
Q: You go to Eskom at a time of extreme turmoil and an uncertain future. Do you believe the upcoming upheavals at the power utility will make your transition easier, or harder?
A: I don't expect that working for Eskom will be any easier, until the company is fully able to deliver on its mandate to the people of South Africa.
Q: As a senior reporter, what are the most critical mistakes you see younger journalists making regularly, particularly in their reporting on state-owned companies and the private business sector?
A: Exactly like us senior journalists, they don't seem to invest enough time reading to understand the institution, or talk to enough people to build relationships and a solid understanding of the business and its mission. The soundbite or catchy headline, without substance, will be the death of us.
Q: Your departure from the journalism space leaves a gaping void for an intrepid young reporter to step into and capitalise on. What would be your advice for an up-and-coming journalist who would like to tackle a subject like Eskom?
A: Everyone of us is completely replaceable, in any industry and organisation. Coming from a poor, rural and then township background where people only depend on the state institutions for services without any alternative, I always wondered why these assets of the people did not work as well as they should - be those the hospitals where people go to die instead of healing (now embarrassingly named after our liberation heroes), government departments or the trains and now electricity.
So I had to find the answer. I found things I loved - the passion of the majority of the people who work there. And found things I hated - corruption! My advice: find something you are PASSIONATE about - and then UNAPOLOGETICALLY dedicate your life to it.
Q: You are obviously more than capable of handling the pressures associated with the Eskom spokesperson job. But do you think the new CEO, Andre de Ruyter, perhaps offered you the job to stop you from asking the difficult questions at press briefings? (Telling the president he should have stayed in Egypt is a recent moment that jumps to mind).
A: Eskom will never escape the difficult questions - until it is able to deliver on its promise, no matter who the spokesperson is. Andre de Ruyter said he wants me to frankly tell the Eskom story, and help him rebuild the institution and win back the trust and support of the people, including Eskom's own passionate employees.