The president, the mayor and the pressures of power

Out in the quiet bushveld town of Lephalale in Limpopo, two multistorey South African flags hang from the towers of a sprawling yet eerily unfinished power plant. As they ripple in the breeze above the still, empty industrial installation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a ghost town.

But look closer. There, around the fenced-in stage erected just for Monday, thousands of construction workers are gathered – in their neon blue and yellow work clothes – hoping to witness the arrival of President Jacob Zuma. He is coming to mark an important milestone in the construction of Eskom’s Medupi power plant.

The sight of the ocean of workers on this landlocked Friday morning is itself powerful – a testament to the massive surge in employment and opportunity that has resulted from the project. But it is not an entirely placid sea, as speeches touching on wage and working conditions will later show: The mayor of Lephalale has a surprise for the president.

The pressure test scheduled brings the Medupi project a significant step closer to fruition and the president is using the opportunity to highlight the 17 000 jobs created by the largest infrastructure plan in South Africa’s history – and the 95% GDP growth for the region’s economy.

Never mind the concerns about whether construction is proceeding according to schedule (it isn’t). The plant might be Eskom’s best shot at saving the nation’s over-taxed power supply from another round of the rolling blackouts that defined everyday life in South Africa four years ago, but that’s a concern for another time. Right now, the president is on stage, and he’s grimly focused on the bright side.

“We are doing the right thing!” insists Zuma. “This massive infrastructure [drive] in the country is going to create sufficient jobs for all of us.”  He warns that energy demand will double its current levels by 2030, but assures us that South Africa is up to the challenge. “These projects demonstrate that our infrastructure plan will [improve] the lives of our people in very practical terms.”

Zuma also points to the skills that workers have developed as a result of Medupi’s construction. Even after construction is finished, he says, the plant will absorb skilled labour to manage it, increasing the number of the nation’s engineers and related experts.

But, grudgingly acknowledging the anxieties of those preoccupied with keeping to schedules, the president calls for patience as the plant’s construction continues. Of the six units originally meant to come online at Medupi earlier this year, only one will be ready by the last quarter of 2013, with each of the other five now due to follow one after the other, about eight months apart.

Zuma doesn’t seem unduly worried – although he won’t quite promise the lights will not go out. He does say that if we want to keep the darkness at bay, everyone will have to pitch in.

“Eskom cannot keep the lights on alone,” he says. “We must all play our part and switch off appliances and lights we are not using.”

As speeches go, it’s by the numbers. He’s pressing all the right buttons, at least, including the big red one that starts off the pressure test which has brought everyone together: the power plant’s first and critical step toward operation.

We watch as a needle rises on the gauge and wobbles uncertainly, as the test proceeds to see whether the boiler’s 600km of steel piping – which also consists of 55 000 “wells”, or joints – can handle the pressure it was designed for.

Lightening SA’s power load
The station’s coal-powered process involves burning coal to boil water. This generates steam, which runs through turbines, turning them to generate electricity. Medupi will also be “dry-cooled” or cooled in part by 64 fans that blow onto piping. The system uses a tenth of the water of a water-cooled plant because water is only needed for steam rather than for steam and cooling.

Construction on Medupi began in May 2007. Its development has been overshadowed by urgency in the wake of the South African government’s reluctance to construct new power plants, due to a hope that a private company rather than Eskom would step in and construct power plants of their own. According to Eskom spokesperson Hilary Joffe, the country was clearly in need of new energy facilities by the late 1990s, but the government did not endorse new energy projects on the scale of Medupi until 2004.

The Medupi plant is now sprawling and enormous, and so too will its benefits be, once its six units are operational. The 8.4km2 station will be South Africa’s largest, with 4 800 Megawatts of power – almost enough to power all of Gauteng, and enough to add about 12% to Eskom’s total capacity.

And Medupi is only the first of three major plants within a R340-billion expansion programme, the largest the South African government has ever undertaken. That plan consists of adding 17 000 MW – or 25% of Eskom’s capacity – to the national power grid by 2018. Along with Medupi, the plan calls for the construction of an equally powerful plant in Kusile and the smaller Ingula pumped-storage scheme, both scheduled to produce power by 2014, the re-starting of three older stations that were built in the 1980s, as well as adding transmission lines to the national grid. Two of those unused stations have already come online, while work on the third continues.

Joffe says that 78% of the funding for the programme is in place, secured through the domestic and international bond market, as well as through a $3-billion World Bank loan arranged in 2010, and export credits from France and Germany, among other countries.

Light at the end of the tunnel
But though the financing has been sewn up, many challenges remain – especially technical ones, even after this presidential pressure test: the unit’s turbines will need to be assembled, and a clutter of electrical cables still need to be strung into place.

“I think today’s success is about the confidence that we can do this,” Eskom financial director Paul O’Flaherty offers, adding that Eskom has not built a power station since the early 1990s. To rebuild a workforce with the needed skills, the company has had to create training programmes and actively recruited from South African universities.

“We need this urgently because the power system is so tight,” O’Flaherty adds. “This couldn’t come quicker.”

Would that it could. But, to be fair, there’s a lot on everyone’s plate. Except, perhaps, on the plates of the people of Lephalale themselves, as mayor Jack Maeko laments when he takes the stage after Zuma, and reminds the president about the unfair pay and poor working conditions endured by the town’s workers.

Some of the project’s contractors and sub-contractors, he says, are responsible for “the victimisation of workers” – an accusation met by a sudden roar of agreement from the thousands of workers surrounding the fenced-off stage.

His complaints are not new, but serve to cast the president’s trumpeted claims about job creation in a decidedly bleaker light.

“We acknowledge that a big project has its own challenges,” Maeko tells the suddenly excited and booing crowd, while Zuma, Eskom’s chairperson Zola Tsotsi, and other officials sit rigidly in the black plush chairs on the stage behind him. “One of our biggest challenges, Mr President, is the victimisation of workers. There are some contractors and sub-contractors who are not complying with basic conditions of employment.”

Behind him, the president’s face is expressionless.

“But we hope, comrade president, through collective leadership, we will be able to address those challenges,” concludes Maeko hastily. “With these few words, comrade president, we thank you, and we thank you very much.”

Kept in the dark
Later, Eskom’s CEO Brian Dames weighs in on the mayor’s remarks. He says that when he spent the day before the speech with Maeko, the mayor had voiced no concerns about the town’s workers.

“This is the first I’m hearing about it,” he says, and defends Eskom’s efforts to develop the region – which include building over 1 200 houses and a school, and increasing the area’s GDP by 95%.

That said, Dames admits, there have been issues with four specific sub-contractors, whom he declines to name. But they will be addressed, he says.

“We have to deal the specific issues among contractors [regarding] how they treat workers … but these are their workers,” says Dames. “We don’t want to step on their toes.”


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