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The Eskom boss told police he survived an assassination attempt in December

The chief executive of South Africa’s troubled state monopoly Eskom told police he survived an attempt to kill him with cyanide-laced coffee, a government minister has said.

Andre de Ruiter was reportedly targeted a day after he resigned from the blackout-prone company last month, shortly before his departure was made public. He blamed a lack of support in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government for his resignation, amid a battle to end the worst blackouts in Africa’s most industrialized nation and to fight massive corporate corruption.

Pravin Gordhan, the minister overseeing Eskom and other state-owned companies, confirmed on Saturday that de Ruyter had informed him of the alleged attempt to poison him. “This attempted murder will be thoroughly investigated and those responsible must be charged,” Gordan told the Financial Times.

De Ruyter, who will remain as Eskom chief executive until the end of March until a replacement is found, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The alleged poisoning underscores the threat to Ramaphosa’s campaign to root out corruption from South Africa’s state-owned companies, the mainstay of the economy, even after his re-election as leader in December strengthened his grip on the ruling African National Congress.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance said on Sunday that de Ruyter “has not only been left out to dry amid ANC shenanigans, but now the criminal syndicates within Eskom are palpably hell-bent on consolidating their stranglehold on Eskom which is destroying the economy . . . now it is necessary to take firm and decisive measures.”

South Africa’s EE Business Intelligence first reported on Saturday that de Ruyteru became violently ill after drinking coffee at Eskom’s headquarters and was rushed to doctors who determined he had elevated cyanide levels.

De Ruiter told the publication: “I reported the matter [the South African police] 5 January 2023 and it can be assumed that the case is under investigation.”

The Eskom crisis is seen as the biggest threat to South Africa’s economy and the ANC’s decades-long rule ahead of national elections next year.

In 2022, South Africans suffered twice as many blackouts as the year before, as faults appeared in Eskom’s fleet of old coal-fired power plants. Newer coal-fired plants also break down all the time. Power outages continued throughout South Africa’s festive season and into the new year.

De Ruiter made many enemies after his appointment in late 2019, as he launched investigations into alleged crime syndicates he accused of exacerbating blackouts by stealing supplies from coal-fired power plants and sabotaging efforts to fix the problems.

He is protected at all times by a bodyguard, as well as other senior executives and even some plant operators in the company.

“Make no mistake, Mpumalanga is a gangster province,” de Ruyter told the FT in October, referring to the coal-producing region where many of Eskom’s power plants are located. “We shot contractors in their cars on the way to the site because they were not giving work to the right people.

The alleged assassination attempt on de Ruyter “shows the intense struggle going on between those who want South Africa to work and prosper; and those who want to get rich corruptly,” said Gordan.

Heavily indebted Eskom has struggled to fund plant maintenance and replenish the diesel needed for emergency power reserves.

In belated annual financial statements published last month, Eskom’s auditors warned of “significant control deficiencies” in the supply of coal, fuel and spare parts to power plants. In one incident, the auditors added, key documents were “deliberately destroyed in a fire” after they were searched for.

South Africa has seen a significant increase in politically connected murders in recent years, from ANC politicians to government officials and anti-corruption whistleblowers. Activists have warned of a proliferation of assassinations in retaliation for corruption investigations and threats to patronage networks.

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