Eskom, once was a beacon of fiduciary virtue, with former CEO Brian Molefe touted as a turnaround specialist sent to restore the power utility's financial and operational stability. And we bought into the narrative, with the country breathing a collective sigh of relief from those annoying forced black-outs due to power shortages. It was all going well, until worms began to emerge from the woodworks, particularly after the state capture report which both Eskom and Molefe strenuously criticised. The merits of the report and how it was conducted aside, it still pointed to a pattern of influence peddling that has now been partly confirmed by the raft of emails that have been leaked to the media during the past few weeks.
The relationship with the Guptas – like similar associations that have now been exposed with other state companies and government departments – has all but tarnished that image of an organisation that was seemingly focusing on corporate governance and openness. The Gupta link has not only tarnished Eskom's corporate brand image but damaged, in some cases, probably fatally so, the career prospects of some if they ever wish to start a new life elsewhere in the private or public sectors. What is particularly irksome, and worrisome to say the least, is what appears to have been a blatant misinformation that Eskom never paid a single cent to the Gupta-linked Trillian.
On Wednesday, Eskom, after all, admitted that indeed, almost R500m was paid to the company. It is unbelievable that South Africans can be lied to with such stark disregard for truthfulness on a matter that is of such national importance. And to make matters worse, even the acting chairman appeared unaware that a Gupta-linked company got Eskom guarantee to help it muscle out a rival to buy the operations of Optimum Holdings. The question that arises immediately is, what else is Eskom not being truthful or is giving us morsels of information when convenient. Another question is what sort of operation the executives at Eskom have been running, from the board to the Executive Committee, as they collectively are accountable for this embarrassing mess.
And the most important question, who exactly is accountable for misleading the nation on payment to Trillian and what will be done about it? Or is it a question of another commission of inquiry that will amount to a slap on the wrist and life goes on? It is such an irony that executives who have presided over this mess are in line for million-rand bonuses. One may argue these bonuses are based on agreed performance targets, but surely, the current mess is a reason to review this? To make matters worse, bonuses are being paid at a time when Eskom's net profit plummeted from R5.2bn to R900m. In a normal company, such performance is punished by non-payment of a bonus. But one supposes things work differently in state companies, where even failure is rewarded.
The reputational mess that Eskom has plunged itself into will take some digging to come out of. It starts with a root and branch review of weaknesses identified in how the company manages its relationships with suppliers, reviewing corporate governance structures and, most importantly, take decisive action to deal with all cases of malfeasance and corruption. Acting CE Johnny Dladla has a mountain to climb, least because he is in an acting capacity and is limited to the extent he can implement tough measures that will make Eskom a company to admire again.
This also speaks to accountable leadership failure by both the board and the line ministry to ensure that there is a sustentative CEO at Eskom. The company is fast becoming another SAA, where a succession of acting CEOs come and go, while operational stability lurches from one crisis to the next. When will we see leadership?