Load shedding … these may well be considered the dirtiest two words in South Africa presently but, unfortunately, it’s all that’s preventing a total collapse of the electricity grid until the impasse between Eskom and workers is resolved.
An electricity expert also says blaming striking workers is a convenient excuse Eskom is using to mask the utility’s incompetence and inability to ensure a reliable supply.
According to spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe, Eskom has to reduce the strain on the national electricity grid through load shedding, as the alternative would be a catastrophic and total blackout. He blamed the state of affairs squarely on workers’ unions, which he accused of sabotaging power stations and of criminal conduct.
And if Eskom and its workers can’t reach a compromise in their wage negotiations soon, South Africans will have a cold winter as load shedding will likely escalate.
Yesterday, Eskom obtained a court interdict prohibiting the intimidation of workers and contractors who are not part of the ongoing wage strike.
This follows “constraints” on the generation and distribution of electricity on Thursday after workers started picketing at power stations and Eskom’s Megawatt Park headquarters in protest at a wage freeze.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and Solidarity lashed out at the decision, saying that effectively workers were being made to pay for mismanagement and corruption at executive level. They are demanding a 15% salary increase.
Numsa spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola said yesterday all the unions involved have elected for a referral of a dispute of interest to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.
They had rejected Eskom’s decision to engage in an arbitration process on the current wage dispute. “Numsa, NUM and Solidarity have unanimously agreed on a referral of a dispute of interest which should be conciliated. We have not been consulted on any arbitration process and we regard this unilateralism as nothing less than the old union-bashing attitude,” Hlubi-Majola said.
“We expect, like any other dispute, this one will be conciliated and a certificate of nonresolution should be issued. In case a settlement is not reached, all our organisational rights are reserved.”
A date for the CCMA meeting is yet to be set.
Meanwhile, the strike is likely to continue and power cuts will be the order of the day.
Eskom started stage one load shedding yesterday, with Phasiwe saying the continued supply of power was totally dependent on whether nonstriking workers could report for duty and coal supply would not be disrupted.
He said there had been road blockades, attacks on staff and incidents of workers disconnecting electricity supplies at stations. Road coal deliveries to several Mpumalanga power stations had been suspended for security reasons.
“We are striving to keep the lights on but we are being hampered by people who work with our infrastructure every day and are experts at doing this.
“They are deliberately making sure we cannot supply power to send a message,” he said.
Ted Blom, a partner at Mining & Energy Advisors and Energy Expert Coalition, however, is not buying Eskom’s excuse for the return of load shedding.
After having warned for months that the utility was on the verge of collapse, he said the current strike was “a convenient cover for all the rubbish that has been going on at Eskom”.
Blom said he had been in contact with unions and they assured him they were committed to “blockage of labour, rather than damage”. The unions also claimed they had not engaged in the sabotage Eskom has accused them of.
He believed the strike conveniently coincided with coal running out, as Eskom had lied about having at least 20 days’ supply stockpiled at all stations.
Blom said disconnecting the power supply would require careful, managed disconnection, otherwise it could take weeks or months to bring stations back online.
He blamed load shedding on “recklessness and 10 years of corruption and mismanagement”. He was furious about “false assurances” there would be no load shedding, adding that “Eskom lied to us and owes South Africa an apology”.
Making enemies of workers:
Eskom has alienated one of its strongest resources, which was their sympathetic workforce, and load shedding will only get worse because of it.
Blom said: “If they can sort out their fight with the unions, they could work together to keep the lights on, because with a sympathetic workforce they could go much further. If they don’t do that, I see things getting much worse.”
However, he also believed little could be done to avert load shedding completely.
Blom said Eskom’s woes came down to three “critical levers”.
“They need reliable labour, good coal quality and availability, and their plants need to run at optimal technical specifications. Right now all three of these are extremely close to the edge.”
He said sources at Eskom had told him that some power stations, including Medupi, were operating at about 20% over specification to maintain supply, which could be disastrous.
“It’s like driving a car. You can’t drive it at full throttle consistently, which is what they are doing now to try to save face. But there’s a risk of it blowing up.”