Dissatisfied workers a real threat to power utility and economy

NEWS ANALYSIS

South Africans were forced into a debate about whether it was ageing infrastructure, money woes, incompetence or sabotage that caused the latest round of load-shedding, which started on Sunday afternoon. But, beyond the documented systemic weaknesses at the power utility, Eskom’s greatest risk is roughly 48 000 disgruntled workers.

While the power utility hurtles from one controversy to the next, the dissatisfaction of its workforce — from blue collars to engineers manning the buttons at the ageing power stations — poses a real danger to Eskom’s ability to keep the lights on.

Several conversations this week with workers on the ground revealed how a culture of fear and distrust is crippling the power utility. The handling of this latest round of load-shedding is illustrative of that.

Over the weekend Eskom told the country to brace for load-shedding for the second time in the past three months.

The system, they said, was again battling to cope with demand. We would later be told that constraints, caused by the crashing of units at Kusile and Medupi power stations, started on Friday afternoon and, by Sunday, Eskom had already burnt through whatever diesel reserves it had in its tankers. The utility was due to order another consignment only on Monday.

Eskom and government were quick in their response and decisive in their assessment, pointing to bad design and structural faults in the builds of the controversial Kusile and Medupi.

But it is the reaction to problems that is of concern. It laid bare tensions between workers and their bosses. Eskom insiders claim poor decision-making and planning right at the very top of Eskom’s management. Friday’s decision to dip into diesel reserves should have been followed by an instruction to replenish the fuel immediately.

An Eskom engineer, who is an operator at one of the stations, said: “Those tanks should always be full because it’s a standby. If today we had a total blackout, we will need gas turbines to restart.

“If you have two stations tripping, the first thing [you look to] is pump storage, hydro and gas turbines. So why were the tanks not full of diesel?”

The engineer, who has worked at Eskom for more than 10 years, likened this situation to driving a long distance without checking whether your spare tyre has any air.

“It’s such a risk.”

Another Eskom employee, also with a technical background, made no bones about his dislike and mistrust for Eskom’s management, saying they have failed to listen to workers’ warnings since taking over in January 2018 and treated everyone as if they were corrupt.

The new Eskom guard — led by board chairman Jabu Mabuza and chief executive Phakamani Hadebe — has had to be quick in getting to grips with an organisation on its last legs.

Corruption was embedded at all levels of the organisation. Financially, the company was just a few months from ruin and no one was willing to lend it more money. At least one agency had rated Eskom below investment grade.

Part of urgent steps to restore confidence was a drive to rid Eskom of its corrupt element. The latest figures available before the company retrenched its executive committee — barring Hadebe and chief financial officer Calib Cassim — in December 2018 showed that about 100 people had been suspended or fired in more than 1 000 investigations that are ongoing.

Among those suspended are three power station managers and scores of operators and managers whose technical knowledge is now sorely needed, workers argue. There are at least nine acting managers at power stations, including Kusile, whose units failed this week.

Not all the firings and suspensions have been linked to corruption, which has led to an environment of fear. “The whole organisation has been gripped by paralysis … People in the stations are not working, they are afraid to take decisions because they are firing people in the name of the clean-up. People are hands-off,” a third Eskom employee said.

“And now it’s going to be worse because now the unions have already started to fight. They run the stations because the operators are part of the bargaining unit.”

For Hadebe, labour relations did not get off to a good start; he clashed spectacularly with workers in June when he told them there would be zero increases.

That impasse saw numerous fires at power stations; acts of sabotage by frustrated workers.

Trust remains absent if rumblings from unions after the State of the Nation address are to be believed.

Most unions representing Eskom workers believe government’s announcement of unbundling Eskom into three entities — generation, transmission and distribution — will lead to job losses.

A spokesperson for the National Union of Mineworkers said they believe the decision to retrench has been made, but won’t be announced until after the elections in May.

Government says the unbundling is necessary to protect transmission and distribution assets and restructure the provision of power to allow for the easy integration of independent power producers.

It also said the division would not result in privatisation of the entity or job losses.

But it’s evident that Eskom is overstaffed and for this reason the promise by government that jobs would not be lost seems an outright lie.

What South Africa needs is a frank discussion that includes the Eskom workers in whose hands the hopes of our ailing economy rests.

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Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

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