Truth to Power: My Three Years Inside Eskom (2023)
by André de Ruyter
Penguin Books, 237 pages, $10
This book gives us a great insight into the Trump years in the West, when people try to keep society functional despite the onslaught of socialism and diversity, but reading past that one finds a great guide full of practical management theory which should not be ignored.
André de Ruyter took on the top job at Eskom, the South African energy utility, after almost two decades of the troubled agency failing to deliver necessary power to South Africa following the end of apartheid and the takeover of the Left-leaning African National Congress with the diversity vote.
Like most South Africans, he was aware that corruption was a problem, but he had no idea that it was so pervasive, or went to the top of the power structure. Having been libeled, threatened, and finally poisoned, he eventually left Eskom to its own fate.
Before that time, he came up with a simple response to third world levels of corruption: competition, privatization, and computerized internal controls. Ironically, the partial success of these measures made him so threatening that the institutionally “racist” power structure had to remove him.
I also took issue with the notion that Eskom staff should be collectively punished for the failure of the generation division. People are motivated by incentives – this is taught in every Economics 101 course. Driving behaviour by rewarding incremental moves in the right direction is elementary management – yet, as part of government equity conditions, we were prohibited from paying incentives to managerial staff. For people working at high-performance stations, such as Matimba and Lethabo, this meant that they were penalised by the performance of Tutuka and Majuba, hundreds of kilometres away.
This creates an environment where mediocrity is encouraged and excellence remains unrewarded, and the performance of the worst determines whether or not incentives are paid. Trying to drive a high-performance culture in such circumstances reduces management to exhortations and appeals to loyalty and patriotism. Added to this was the risk that our skilled staff were highly sought after internationally. (210)
de Ruyter resembles Donald Trump in that he is actually a moderate: he does not oppose diversity, socialist-style entitlements, or social liberalism. Naïvely, he expects pluralism to allow these new things to co-exist with functional business, which is a misunderstanding of ideology.
Ideology is all-consuming. Its methods and goals are the same: achieve equality, via equality, while removing anything other than equality. It does not take Economics 101 courses because it does not care what is real, only what makes people feel warm sensations of equality.
Guys like de Ruyter on the other hand are basically apolitical. They like to make stuff work and really believe in nothing else, which puts them into the “dangerous nerds” category with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffett. However this puts them in conflict with the ideologues.
For de Ruyter, Eskom represented an opportunity: without reliable and inexpensive power, it is difficult for a nation-state to maintain industrialization, and over the last twenty years of political jockeying, the once-great South African power utility had been reduced to a shadow of itself.
This meant that there was opportunity here. If someone could turn the mess around, they would achieve something great for their nation that would be appreciated across party lines. In theory, no one would oppose making life better for everyone… right?
Ideology and ethnic identity however are territorial. If the guy from another political view fixes something, that is a loss for the ideologue, so he opposes it; if a guy from another ethnic group wins, this is a loss for the racially-aware person, so he generally opposes it.
In a charge reminiscent of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, I was accused by Mondli Gungubele and Thabo Mbeki of being ‘right-wing’, the most damning condemnation that they could summon from their leftist perspective. Well, maybe. If being engaged in battling corruption with precious little assistance from the state makes me right-wing, then maybe I am right-wing. If putting South Africa on the path to solving its energy crisis, all while growing jobs and cleaning up the environment, is right-wing, then maybe I am right-wing. If relieving pressure on the fiscus by enabling private-sector investment and reducing the need for onerous guarantees from Treasury is a characteristic of a right-winger, then perhaps I am one. The left-wing solutions promoted by the ANC haven’t made a dent in loadshedding for fifteen years and have led to catastrophic unemployment and anaemic economic growth. Could that be an indication that it is time for another approach? (217)
Since the days of Tammany Hall in the US, we see the diversity-socialism axis maintain itself consistently: the third world runs on socialism, or rather the idea of giving out favors in exchange for support, as is the case in the warlord system. The two cannot be separated.
As a narrator, de Ruyter is immediately recognizable as the nerdly but masculine type that tends to become a CEO, a little bit of a peacock, oblivious to anything beyond his field, not particularly intellectual but curious about how to make organizations work.
His workmanlike writing populates itself with quotations and anecdotes that demonstrate principles of good management, and it is on this basis that this book can be recommended: for a general study of how to manage people and work around the usual dysfunction in individuals and groups.
His analysis provides a detailed tour of what we might describe as the seven deadly psychologies of humanity — rationalization, territoriality, denial, narcissism, Dunning-Kruger Effect, scapegoating, deflection — and how to recognize them and work around them.
The backdrop of the struggle of a few brave people of all races against the corruption brought on by diversity is useful in a historical and political sense, but we all know of these failings, so the interesting part is what can be done.
In the end, not much could be done for Eskom, since de Ruyter was forced out for succeeding where the permanent uniparty, the African National Congress (ANC), could not, and for demanding change that would contradict the ANC narrative and “deep state” of its own getting fat on corruption.
In The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper writes about the Hegelian determinism that blinds almost all Marxists: they believe if they just keep on doing the same thing over and over again, eventually the proletariat will triumph, because it is historically and dialectically predetermined. Meanwhile, history shows clearly that Marxism is a dead-end ideology.
Because of their myopic views, I find that debating with Marxists is like debating with members of the Flat Earth Society. You cannot win. They believe in their ideology like an evangelist believes in the Second Coming. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they strive for greater state intervention and greater state regulation. (90)
Men of the CEO mindset are like a cross between detectives and research scientists. They have to trace back problems to their sources, find the pattern, and figure out a way to both interrupt it and replace it with a more functional one, hopefully without offending everyone.
The average person lives in a comfortable bubble of consumerism where causes and effects are the same. If you want something different, you buy a different product or say different words to other people. You manipulate by appearance, not structure and function.
They may be familiar with manipulation in a social and political sense, like the ANC stooges are in this book, but they are not familiar with manipulating reality itself through direct or indirect methods that require understanding cause from effect.
Most right now will read Truth to Power: My Three Years Inside Eskom for a look at the ongoing diversity crisis in South Africa which is as typical of the genre of Northern Ireland, Detroit, or Kosovo, but its management philosophy might be its enduring offering to the Western canon.