'You must be a walking encyclopaedia' - what's all in a day's work for Eskom's Khulu Phasiwe

As Eskom spokesperson, Khulu Phasiwe's day starts as early as 05:30 to prepare for radio interviews, and could end as late as 22:00, on a "lucky day".

Phasiwe on Friday announced that he tendered his resignation as the "voice and face" of Eskom, a position he has held for five years. His last day will be April 30, and deputy spokesperson Dikatso Mothae will step in until management decides who will be Phasiwe's replacement.

'I have fought the good fight'

In a WhatsApp message to journalists, Phasiwe quoted a verse from the Bible, likening his resignation from the power utility to Paul the Apostle informing his disciple Timothy in a letter that his "time for departure is nearing".

"2 Timothy 4:6. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith," Phasiwe posted.

"I have tendered my resignation from Eskom, and I'll leave at the end of this month. I did my best to serve our company and our nation, and I would like to take some time off to relax and recharge, no pun intended. Thank you for the friendship over the years, and I am sure we'll [meet] in other circles of life, God-willing. Can I hear an Amen!"

According to a statement from Eskom, Phasiwe has been at the power utility for 10 years and previously worked as senior communications adviser on the Media Desk. He was appointed deputy spokesperson in 2010, before being appointed national spokesperson in 2014.

In the statement, CEO Phakamani Hadebe thanked Phasiwe for his service.

'War zone'

"I do think I have run this race, professionally and with dignity. But it is time I hand over the baton to someone else," Phasiwe told Fin24 by phone on Friday morning.

Phasiwe does not know yet what he will do next, but is taking time to "detox" from what he described as a "war zone" - given the myriad challenges that had to be addressed in his daily work life, which often came at the expense of his family life, he told Fin24.

When asked how many phone calls he had to deal with on a daily basis, Phasiwe said that he got "a fair amount" of queries, especially during emergency situations like load shedding, or other breaking stories.

"Sometimes there would be two or three stories running at the same time, and you would have to know everything or most of those things.

"In some cases, my day started at 05:30 in the morning, because the radio people wanted to prepare their first clip for the 06:00 news bulletin. So from 05:30 I was already getting calls," he said.

"On a lucky day, I would continue working until 22:00 or 23:00 in the evening, because of the talk shows on radio that wanted to do interviews."

Toll on family life

Phasiwe said these situations had contributed to him becoming a somewhat "absent father".

"There would be instances that I would drive my kids to school and not be able to say goodbye to them. In the afternoon when I picked them up, there would also be some other emergency we had to deal with … it was just one of those things."

The concept of weekends and public holidays had become a "rumour" because he found he had to work right through these days in emergencies, he added. "At some point it takes a toll on you as a human being. It's just like someone who has been to war. At some point you need to sit back and reflect and detox before you can go into other things in life."

Phasiwe said the support of his wife was incredibly important in allowing him to be available for his work. "I may have been available for the media and the general population of South Africa, but this was at the expense of my family," he said. 

Eskom's media team of six had also been supportive and helped carry the load, he said. "I would not have been able to achieve some things if the support base was not there," he added.

Dream to teach

Asked what kept him going in such a high-pressured environment, Phasiwe said he had always wanted to be a teacher, and being Eskom's spokesperson placed him in a "grand classroom" where he could inform and teach SA's population to get a better understanding of the power system.

Of the strangest queries received, Phasiwe said once he had to explain to a journalist how to spell Eskom. "I was in a teaching mode, I had to teach how to spell Eskom," he said.

But there were also heartwarming moments, Phasiwe said.

He recalled having helped someone who had a query about her electricity meter. The woman called back to thank him for helping and had mistaken him for being the CEO. "Lo and behold, she said: 'I never thought I would speak to the CEO of Eskom,'" Phasiwe said.

Apart from the support of his family and Eskom, strangers have also been a form of encouragement for Phasiwe. Once at a mall, he met someone who said that they had been keeping him and Eskom in prayer, given the difficulties.

"These are things that kept me relatively sane and able to do the things I was able to do," he said.

Of the biggest lessons he learnt during his time as spokesperson, Phasiwe said that it was important to always be available to give the media the correct information, which ultimately was communicated to the public.

Phasiwe said his experience as a financial journalist at Business Day, reporting on Eskom, had contributed to him being able to get to grips with the technicalities of the information he was communicating. He further gave credit to his background in physical science as a high school student, which helped him decode all the technical details.

Eskom's engineering community had also been supportive in his role, Phasiwe added.

Available, responsive, calm

His advice to his successor is that they need to be available and responsive, given tight media deadlines, and to be a "calm person".

His successor must also be a keen reader, and know the Eskom annual report like the back of his or her hand.

"You become like a walking encyclopaedia to explain what is going on, without delays for journalists to meet their deadlines," he said.

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