- In May 2022, evidence of sabotage emerged at three Eskom power stations – cables and an air pipe were cut at Tutuka, crucial copper parts were removed from three units within the heart of Hendrina, and an attempt was made to take a unit at Matla offline.
- Sabotage at Eskom is real, the utility proclaimed.
At the time, Kyle Cowan’s book on Eskom, aptly titled Sabotage, was on the printing press. Cowan’s book begins with an incident in November 2021 when unknown saboteurs toppled a strategic pylon near Lethabo Power Station in the Free State, almost causing the country to plunge into stage 6 load shedding. Eskom’s chief executive officer André de Ruyter declared: ‘This was clearly now an act of sabotage and I think we can call it as such.’
Who is behind these attacks, and what is their ultimate goal?
Here is an extract from Kyle Cowans book that explains the role former acting Eskom CEO, Mathsela Koko, played in the delay in the country’s once successful Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) and its effect on loadshedding in South Africa.
For two years, Koko refused to sign power purchase agreements with IPPs that had successfully bid to be part of the programme, delaying the introduction of an estimated 3 000 MW to 4 000 MW of new capacity by years. At the time, he said it was because they were too expensive comparatively.
‘We told them that IPPs are expensive and that is why we refused to sign them. They pushed us out. Now that the matter is before the courts they are trying to manoeuvre themselves out of the mess we warned them about,’ Koko tweeted on 18 February 2019.20
In response to a follow-up question over when exactly he began refusing to sign with IPPs, Koko tweeted: ‘I refused to sign since June 2015. Hadebe signed them on 4 April 2018. He made a big blunder by signing them.’21
Yet the cost of electricity from IPPs has reduced significantly over the years as the technology has become cheaper to install and the market has become more competitive.
A senior Eskom official, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that Koko’s refusal to timeously sign power purchase agreements with successful IPP bidders had contributed to the higher levels of load shedding since 2019. ‘The new capacity would have come onboard by now. Even if it is reality that the IPPs are expensive, we should have sacrificed that for security of supply. Look at the cost of load shedding to the economy and compare that with what we could have paid for power from these newer, cheaper IPPs,’ this official said.22
A recent Nova Economics study, commissioned by Eskom, found that one day of stage 1 load shedding – the loss of just 1 000 MW capacity – costs the economy R235.5 million, while a day of stage 2 load shedding (2 000 MW) costs R471.3 million.23
‘The increase in unplanned losses [starting in early 2018]has many contributing factors,’ Eskom said in response to questions around our investigation. ‘The fact that it is an ageing fleet, run exceptionally “hard” for over 10 years, whilst performance improvement and reliability maintenance (such as mid-life refurbishment) was deferred due to capacity (due to the late decision by government to allow Eskom to build new plants) and funding (due to NERSA allowed revenue below prudent and efficient costs) are indeed major contributors to the decline in the performance of the Generation fleet.’
Much of what is in this chapter I reported for News24 in October 2021. It was split over three articles, the first of which was published on 25 October. Because the issues were so complex, News24 also published an explainer article, detailing five key takeaways from the investigation.
Koko challenged this explainer on two narrow aspects, neither of which related to the substance of our investigation. In December 2021, the Deputy Press Ombud dismissed his complaint and he promptly appealed. During oral arguments before a panel of representatives chaired by retired judge Bernard Ngoepe in March 2022, Koko accused me of racism. He said the only reason my reporting portrayed him in a negative light was because I could not stand the fact that two white men, De Ruyter and Oberholzer, were not achieving the same level of success as he had at Eskom. For all his arguments, Koko never once challenged the substance of my reporting in the in-depth pieces – that his card system had potentially driven power station staff to hide unplanned breakdowns – beyond his original denial, which I reported along with my findings.
But in April 2022, the appeals panel ruled that News24 had to retract two key statements in the explainer article. The first was that an increase in planned maintenance in 2015 was not sustained during Koko’s tenure – the panel ordered News24 to clarify that this statement was not based on Eskom’s audited financial statements and that the increase was, according to Eskom’s annual financial statements, sustained.
The second – to the extent that the article gave the impression that continuing breakdowns at Eskom are attributable to Koko – the appeals panel ruled that such a statement was not justified and was unfair, and ordered News24 to retract it.
Koko had also complained about statements in the article that, during his tenure, there were ‘damaging practices of running power generation units hard’. This complaint was rejected.
Koko’s complaint, which was ultimately upheld by the appeals panel, centred on one paragraph in a body of work spanning approximately 9 000 words of reporting – the majority of which stands unchallenged.
The day after the ruling was handed down, Koko took to Twitter. He mischaracterised the ruling as proof that all the reporting about him had been labelled fake news by Judge Ngoepe, which is untrue. He even went a step further, labelling me and my editor, Pieter du Toit, ‘blatant racists’. Attached to this tweet was a picture of Judge Ngoepe and a purported quote from the ruling, into which Koko had inserted words that were never part of the ruling – the names of Jan Oberholzer and André de Ruyter.
That same day, Judge Ngoepe and the panel directed Koko to remove his tweets, particularly the one showing the misquoted ruling. In a second directive, he was instructed to apologise to the appeals panel within three days, failing which News24 would not be called on to publish the corrections. According to the directive, he was to specifically indicate in his apology that he had inserted the names and lumped quotes from different parts of the ruling together without any indication that they did not follow on from one another. He removed the tweets, apologised to Ngoepe and the appeals committee, and News24 duly published the corrective statement.24 To me, it was crucial in supporting the self-regulation of the media to comply with the sanction imposed by the appeals panel, even though I disagreed.
The paragraph Koko had complained about in the explainer had been selectively drawn from a caption on a graph in the main article – a valuable lesson for me as a journalist, but a fact that makes the decision by the appeals panel even more frustrating. In my opinion, events during Koko’s tenure played a role in the increased unreliability the power stations face today, but in his hands, the appeals ruling became an instrument to misrepresent what News24 reported. In commenting on the ruling, emeritus professor and senior scholar at the Power Futures Lab at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business Anton Eberhard argued that ‘neither Eskom’s annual auditing process, nor the judge presiding over the press case, were sufficiently exposed to technical details that showed how manipulation of the data might have been possible’.25 Listening to Koko’s submissions to the panel, and then witnessing his later misrepresentation of the ruling, has left me with the firm impression that he has a somewhat casual relationship with the truth.
I still have not found all the answers and every so often I find myself staring at row upon row of data in an Excel sheet, looking at our power stations through a strange prism of numbers so far removed from the roar of the turbines as to be part of another world. And I keep coming back to just one fact. In March 2018, the month after Koko resigned from Eskom, unplanned losses spiked to 16.5 per cent from 11.4 per cent in February. By November that year, the figure had breached 21 per cent. In 2021, unplanned breakdowns stood at 20 per cent. Add to that 12 per cent of planned maintenance and an extensive reliability maintenance programme and Eskom suffered the worst year of load shedding in its history.
Based on exclusive interviews with De Ruyter, Oberholzer, Eskom chairperson Professor Malegapuru Makgoba and other key figures, Sabotage is a story of conspiracy and subterfuge at South Africa’s ailing power utility, uncovering the power struggles that threaten the country’s very survival.
Kyle Cowan is an award-winning journalist. He was twice named joint winner of the prestigious Taco Kuiper Award for investigative journalism and works at News24 as part of their in-depth investigative team.
The book has a recommended retail price of R280.00