South African investigators have arrested the former head of the country’s national power provider, Eskom, on corruption charges. South African analysts say while this is a significant step toward tackling state graft, it won’t fix the country’s worsening energy crisis.
Matshela Koko, the former head of state power provider Eskom, was charged Thursday with multiple counts related to corruption, fraud and money laundering.
The lawyer leading the charge for the National Prosecuting Authority, Andrea Johnson, said in a statement, “This arrest is about accountability and rule of law … it is imperative for the country and its people that we serve without fear, favor or prejudice.”
Koko’s wife, two stepdaughters and other officials under his tenure also were charged in the complex case, which involves more than $121 million in power station construction contracts.
Analysts say the charges show growing momentum in efforts to tackle widespread corruption in state institutions.
“I think what this sends out is [the message] that if you are in a position of power and authority and you commit corruption, that the precedent has been clearly set that you can and will be held accountable,” said Gareth Newham, head of justice and violence prevention for the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria. “So, it’s a very important principle that has now been established, and one of those lacking for too long in South Africa.”
Eskom was just one institution targeted in state graft — called state capture — under the nearly decade-long tenure of former president Jacob Zuma that was investigated by a judicial inquiry.
Among the inquiry’s recommendations was to strengthen the National Prosecuting Authority.
Current President Cyril Ramaphosa has done just that, by adding an independent directorate to the authority and giving it more resources, as part of his anti-corruption mandate.
Newham said the investigation into Koko exemplifies the potential of a strengthened public prosecutor.
“I think it shows that the hard work that has been undertaken within the National Prosecuting Authorities since the beginning of 2019 is starting to pay off,” he said.
Koko has maintained his innocence, and his arrest doesn’t mean a political win for Ramaphosa.
Analysts point out that other high-ranking officials implicated in the graft inquiry continue to hold offices under Ramaphosa’s watch.
“He has the authority as the president of the country, as the leader of the administration to remove certain people now on all levels of government… which he’s not doing,” said Ina Gouws, a political scientist at the University of the Free State.“If he’s waiting for the National Prosecuting Authority to do his job for him, when it comes to getting rid of caterers who are implicated in corruption, then you can imagine how badly that goes for the country.”
The trial, set to take place in March, will not fix Eskom and the country’s energy crisis.
The utility is billions of dollars in debt and implementing daily blackouts due to breakdowns at power stations.
“The recovery of funds from the likes of people that have been arrested recently is quite frankly, trivial at this stage,” said Clyde Mallinson, an independent energy expert. “If Eskom had an infinite budget, as we speak, and if they had an infinite amount of coal, we would still be where we sit at the moment, because it’s time that we’ve lost.”
While the public may welcome the prospect of accountability for corruption at Eskom, Mallinson said they can’t expect the blackouts to end any time soon.