Sipho Masondo | 'Race' battles at Eskom: How I was told to choose a side

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Eskom CEO André de Ruyter in January 2020.
Eskom CEO André de Ruyter in January 2020.
PHOTO: Freddy Mavunda/Gallo Images, Business Day

When allegations of racism emerged at Eskom, I was placed under tremendous pressure, often from people I knew, to pick a side, writes Sipho Masondo. 

Advocate Ishmael Semenya SC's findings that Eskom chief executive André de Ruyter is not guilty of racism and egregious abuse of power has relieved me of an internal anguish that has consumed me for well over three months.

It all started in mid-February when letters, addressed to Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and the Presidency, surfaced in the media. Solly Tshitangano had levelled a battery of accusations against de Ruyter. Key to his charges was that de Ruyter assumed a hardline approach when dealing with Econ Oil, a black-owned fuel supplier and handled white-owned companies like Rula Bulk with kid gloves. Both companies had dodgy dealings with Eskom in the past. Tshitangano also accused de Ruyter of nepotism after he had Eskom appoint Werner Mouton, a former colleague with whom he had worked at Sasol, on a short-term contract.

A week later de Ruyter suspended Tshitangano and charged him with incompetence, arguing that he had failed to meet key targets, including negotiating better payment terms with big contractors in effort to relieve short-term cash challenges at Eskom. De Ruyter also charged Tshitangano with dragging his feet in removing Econ Oil from Eskom’s supplier database in the face of mounting evidence of wrong-doing against Econ Oil.

Narrative emerged of racism 

Initially, it looked like de Ruyter was using the suspension to purge Tshitangano for asking legitimate questions. After all, both the public and private sectors are awash with examples where disciplinary processes are weaponised to get rid of "rogue elements". A public narrative emerged that de Ruyter’s removal of Tshitangano was motivated by racism.

I also bought into that narrative by default, owing to being a black man in a country with glaring racialised inequalities.

At the time, I also had no reason not to trust Tshitangano. I had known him professionally for a decade and I have high regard for him as a venerable and principled senior civil bureaucrat. But there were problems. I was sitting in a newsroom and I had to assist the public in making sense of it all. The cognitive dissonance started mounting and I lost sleep over the matter.

READ | Analysis: The scandalising of de Ruyter and how the race card has become the 'South African way'

De Ruyter and Tshitangano’s fallout happened about three weeks after News24 received the Eskom Files, a colossal data dump containing financial and legal records, emails, forensic reports and letters exposing the industrial scale looting which happened during the construction of the Kusile Power Station.

During the first week of May, News24 started publishing stories about the Eskom files. Powerful people were implicated.

Another narrative emerged; de Ruyter was using News24 as a hired gun to shoot his detractors and hide his own corruption. It didn’t help that News24’s reporting also zoomed in on large construction firms and multi-national corporations which often get away with little or no media scrutiny for their involvement in corruption.

I was placed under tremendous pressure, often by people I knew, to pick a side purely on the basis of race. The argument was that de Ruyter and his chief operations officer Jan Oberholzer were evicting black executives and companies, replacing them with white executives and contractors alike.

But as I continued reading the Eskom Files one thing became clear - Tshitangano’s continued support for Econ Oil was totally illogical, irrational and inexplicable.

Econ Oil overcharged Eskom 

A number of investigations over the years found Econ Oil had overcharged Eskom by more than R1.2 billion, had inappropriate relationships with the power utility’s executives and had been appointed through unorthodox means. Under the circumstance, it would be hard, if not impossible, to justify why Eskom continued to source oil from the company. I submit that de Ruyter’s push for the company to be axed was not only morally and ethically correct, it was also legally justifiable.

As fate would have it, Advocate Nazeer Cassim found Tshitangano guilty on a number of counts, including intentionally advancing Econ’s interests to the detriment of Eskom. In the wake of Tshitangano’s claims of racism against de Ruyter, Eskom appointed Adv Ishmael Semenya SC to conduct an inquiry into the matter. Tshitangano then summersaulted on his racism allegations. This was revealed in Semenya’s report published this week. Semenya also cleared de Ruyter of any allegations of abuse of power.

READ | The Eskom files: Kusile supplier slush fund paid over a million towards Eskom manager's chicken farm

I spent many sleepless nights wondering if I had not let Tshitangano down, by not using my privilege as a senior black journalist to defend him from de Ruyter, who by virtue of being a while male in an executive position, wields a considerable amount of power. I kept wondering if I wouldn't be found wanting on the wrong side of this saga once it climaxed. My conscience is now clean.

De Ruyter could well be racist. And it is tempting to reach that conclusion by judging how he allegedly handled the Econ Oil and Rula Bulk matters respectively. But this is the same de Ruyter who has recovered R1.5 billion from ABB, R177 million from Deloitte Consulting, and is looking to recover more millions from other white multinational firms. He has also pressed criminal charges against two white companies, for corruption at Kusile. Based on these examples, it would be hard to sustain the argument that he treats companies differently based on the race of their owners.

There is an emerging and worrying trend in South Africa that seeks to declare all white people guilty of racism by default, until proven otherwise. For obvious reasons, this is undesirable and totally against the laws of natural justice.

Racism is institutionalised

By declaring white people guilty of racism by default, we bastardise and trivialise what is essentially a lived reality of the majority of black South Africans.

For the record, racism is institutionalised in South Africa. Corporate South Africa is racist. Black South Africans contend with racism in boardrooms of companies listed on the JSE, to the supermarket floor, on the road, in factories in suburban areas and farms. Banks are racist and charge black people more interest than their fellow white counterparts. In many ways, because they decide how to deploy capital, banks shape the economy. Often black entrepreneurs get declined business loans and other forms of credit for nothing else other than being black. This perpetuates current patterns where white people dominate the economy. Black entrepreneurs are much more likely to make it safe to Mars than obtain a business loan from a South African bank. The only way for a black man, much less a woman, to become a multi-millionaire in this country is through tenderprenuership or illicit means.

The media is often culpable in perpetuating racial tensions and racism by being shallow and failing to see what lies beyond breaking stories and headlines. Consider, for example, the coverage of Covid-19 corruption. The focus, deservedly so, is on how a few politicians and politically connected people benefitted from Covid-19 tenders. But people who made the actual money throughout the duration of Covid-19 is manufacturing firms, most of whom are white-owned. During the early days of Covid-19, many manufacturers hoarded PPEs such as masks and sanitisers, sending demand shooting through the roof. Prices tripled overnight.

Corruption in the private sector

But because many white-owned manufacturers were not BEE compliant, government would not buy from them. What followed is that creative politicians and senior civil servants, through proxies, received orders from government, sourced the goods from the manufactures, added their inflated markup and delivered to the government. Essentially, they were middlemen. One day they went to bed as paupers, the next morning they were multi-millionaires. The manufacturers themselves charged a premium for their goods. This is why the government ended up paying double or triple the amount for all PPEs. But not a single media house has covered this great rip-off perpetrated by the private sector. Quite often because journalists themselves are clueless.

READ | The Eskom files: Achtung! NPA asks Germany, Switzerland for assistance in Koko, ABB probe

De Ruyter should not get a free pass. As a white male, and an executive at the highest echelons of Eskom, he should be aware his privileges and the enormous amount of power he wields. He should be careful in how he exercises the power accessible to him.

As an aside I do not think he is racist. I have interacted with him on a few occasions and observed him with an eye trained to pick up certain clues based on what people say. But I will strongly suggest that he, and all white people in general, especially those who occupy positions of power in corporate South Africa, to contact Teresa Oakley-Smith for a course on diversity and how they benefit from their white privilege.

- Sipho Masondo is an investigative journalist at News24 and a former recipient of the Nat Nakasa award for bravery in journalism.

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