/OPINION: Nobody sees colour in the dark

OPINION: Nobody sees colour in the dark

2019-11-20 16:19

Andre de Ruyter has a mammoth task ahead of him fixing Eskom. It is vital that we don’t distract him with conversations grounded in political expediency, writes Howard Feldman.

Any South African who has endured load shedding will confirm that we don’t see colour in the dark. No one does.

Following this truth, it is equally true that even the world’s worst racist will not care what the skin tone is of the hand that switches the power back on. It is most likely fair to say that rugby aside, the one other aspect of South African life that unites the nation is Eskom. And not in a good way.

The appointment of the new Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter unsurprisingly elicited a response that referred to his ethnicity. In what I thought was deeply ironic, the EFF called the appointment racist, based on his skin colour. The unions were equally concerned but then seemed to reconsider by suggesting that if he doesn’t break up the state utility, then perhaps they might get behind him.

READ | Eskom CEO appointment met with surprise, scepticism

According to Fin24, the markets are nervous about the appointment for different reasons. De Ruyter is currently the CEO of packaging company Nampak Ltd. Although he might have considerable corporate experience, he does not have experience at a utility. He has further been appointment at a time when Eskom is undergoing a transformation that will require technical and financial knowledge as well as an ability to deal with the government and labour unions.

A R138bn government bailout has bought it just two years to effect a turnaround and deal with its R450bn debt. Not a simple ask of anyone. No matter the experience.

Put differently, Michelle Wohlberg, a trader at FirstRand Ltd. in Johannesburg, said in a client note, “As the new CEO has no public-side experience, the market is not sure on him lasting long.”

It is difficult to imagine who the perfect candidate would be or if they even exist. It is equally difficult to imagine why any person would take on a job as difficult and as significant as this one. The personal risk is enormous. It is clear that De Ruyter is not motivated to take this on for the money (given his Nampak earnings) and given the reaction that he must have anticipated, his drive could not have been the publicity that he will receive.

I imagine that his choice to accept the position is based on a combination of factors; pressure from Finance Minister Tito Mboweni with whom his time at Nampak overlapped, as well as the desire to make a difference. If this is correct, then even given the lack of experience at a utility, I believe that he stands a fighting chance of succeeding.

The well-known story of the rescue of the teenage Thai soccer team who were trapped in a cave, serves as basis for my positivity. When it became known that the youngsters were trapped, the world gathered to try and save them. Different countries, languages, skill sets and socio-economic levels didn’t matter at all. Because the focus was simply to save the boys.

The process was enormously complex, but the goal was not. And as a result, the teenagers were brought to surface unharmed.

This approach is true of businesses, of organisations, of families and of state utilities. If the goal is simplified and if everyone is clear on what they are trying to achieve, then miracles can be achieved. But if we confuse the goals and make it about race and pigmentation, then we can be assured of failure.

Andre de Ruyter has a mammoth task ahead of him. It is vital that we allow him to focus on his mission and that we don’t distract him with conversations that might be grounded in political expediency. It is vital that we keep remembering that in the dark, no one sees anything, let alone colour.

– Howard Feldman is a keynote speaker and analyst. He is the author of three books and is the morning talk show host on ChaiFM.

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