/ 23 October 2012

Environmental activists detained outside Eskom’s headquarters

Fourteen environmental activists have been detained after protesting against electricity tariff increases and Eskom's reliance on coal power.
Fourteen environmental activists have been detained after protesting against electricity tariff increases and Eskom's reliance on coal power.

The arrests happened after the activists staged a coup d’état of sorts outside Eskom's main gate in Johannesburg.

At dawn members of three environmental organisations chained themselves to a desk outside the gate. They also unfurled a giant banner reading: "Eskom is under new management." 

groundWork director Bobby Peek, said: “We are here today because Eskom has clearly failed the people of South Africa.” Their basic problems were the power utility's committment to using coal to create energy, and the resulting tariff increase. The other two organisations involved were Greenpeace Africa and Earthlife Africa.  

Before lunchtime, police arrived and arrested 14 of the activists. Fiona Musana, Greenpeace Africa's spokesperson, said the protesters were told they were under arrest and taken to Sandton police station.

“They did not even allow them to speak to our legal representatives,” she said while rushing to the station.

Melita Steele, Greenpeace Africa’s Climate and Energy campaigner, said the symbolic coup was prompted by the 16% hike in electricity costs and the fact that Eskom uses 10 000 litres of water a second.

“Water plays a critical role in poverty alleviation and development. However, at the moment Eskom is holding our water resources hostage by burning coal to produce electricity,” she said.

The parastatal needs to look at more sustainable ways to produce electricity, she said.

“There are effective alternatives to coal, but there is no substitute for water.”

In response to the situation, Hilary Joffe, spokesperson for Eskom, said, “We do engage with NGOs and I think we all have the same objectives as a country. We want to secure the supply of electricity, give access to energy for all, and cleaner electricity. The debate is about how we get there.”

Peek said Eskom was choosing the wrong path by sticking with coal. While government pumps billions into developing new Eskom coal-fired power stations for industry, the community's health is increasingly affected by the toxic by-products of coal from industries, he said.

Makoma Lekalaka, of Earthlife Africa, said a big problem with Eskom’s tariff increase was that it was going towards coal-fired electricity. This would be paid for by the poorest, while companies like BHP Biliton continue to receive low cost electricity, he said.

“It is time for Eskom to deliver clean, affordable, accessible electricity to everybody in this country,” he said.  

Eskom is currently trying to get this sweetheart deal cancelled or adjusted.

Last week Greenpeace released a report on the water costs of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations. This said that while nearly a million South Africans did not have access to water – a person is constitutionally guaranteed 25 litres a day – Eskom was going to be using more and more water.

The Greenpeace report "Water hungry coal: Burning South Africa’s water to produce electricity", forecasted that continuing on the path of coal power stations would not only lead to tariff hikes, but also bring huge externality costs.

Officials at the Sandton police station were not available to comment.