Fears that a ferocious labour pushback against possible retrenchments appear to be at the centre of Eskom and government’s decision to deploy police, intelligence and even the military to protect power stations.
The Mail & Guardian has established that Eskom’s top management, led by chief executive Phakamani Hadebe, has been meeting the police’s top brass under the umbrella of the National Joint Intelligence Structure (Natjoints) in a bid to avert acts of sabotage, which include the destruction of Eskom property, some of which are national key points.
One of the meetings, in which it was resolved to bring in the South African National Defence Force’s legal department to see whether the situation warranted the deployment of SANDF members, was held at the office of Mpumalanga’s police commissioner, Lieutenant General Bethuel Zuma.
At this January meeting, the M&G was told, Hadebe allegedly revealed the power utility would be forced to announce retrenchments if its application before the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) for a 15% to 17% tariff increase was unsuccessful.
He allegedly said research to determine how many employees, from management to the work floor, would be affected were at an “advanced stage”.
The meeting was attended by, among other South African Police Service (SAPS) officials, Major General Josias Lekalakala, the head of crime intelligence’s covert division, and the head of organised crime, Major General Khothi Senthumule. Hadebe said he feared that Eskom, and therefore national security, was at risk because of last year’s industrial action — following his announcement of a 0% increase for workers — in which Eskom assets were damaged.
He said Eskom’s own security services had let the utility down by apparently colluding with striking workers and giving them access to company assets.
The meeting also discussed the apparently slow response by police during the industrial action. Eskom managers first had to speak to senior police officers before SAPS members attended to reported incidents.
On Thursday, Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe did not respond to questions. Instead, he said the state-owned entity has consistently said it does not have a mandate to extend retrenchments to levels lower than the executives who were retrenched last December.
“Eskom regularly meets with the regulatory authorities to ensure compliance with the relevant prescripts of the law, as several of Eskom facilities nationally are national key points and/or strategic installations,” he said.
“The protection of Eskom’s infrastructure and assets are essential for national interest. To this end, President [Cyril] Ramaphosa last week announced an interministerial task team, which includes the ministers of police and national intelligence, to look into various aspects of Eskom’s viability and sustainability.”
Phasiwe added: “Eskom cannot comment on the rumours of the perceived acts of sabotage.”
Nersa has already approved a 4.1% increase for Eskom effective from April 1, and is considering another application for a further 15% increase a year for the next three years, also starting in April.
The power utility hopes the R69-billion bailout over three years, announced by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in his budget speech, would help to turn its financial situation around.
Eskom did not say what effect this announcement would have on Hadebe’s views that retrenchments depended on Nersa’s decision.
Nersa spokesperson Charles Hlebela said an announcement regarding Eskom’s application would be made in the first week of March.
The M&G has also learnt that the January meeting agreed that any decision to retrench workers would only be announced after the elections to avert disruptions at the polls.
A senior government source said there were real concerns that Eskom workers intended to strike before or during the elections and that some “elements” would take advantage of this and cause disruptions to the electricity supply.
Natjoints includes the department of justice, the SAPS and the SANDF. It co-ordinates security and law enforcement operations in the country. Its chairperson, deputy police commissioner Lieutenant General Sehlahle Masemola, chaired a January 25 meeting, at which the police revealed they were still investigating alleged acts of sabotage that took place in June.
Those present at the meeting agreed to the formation of a joint committee, to which an invitation would be extended to the SANDF. Officers from specialised police units such as crime intelligence and the directorate for priority crimes would be attached to the unit to:
- Perform threat assessments before, during and after retrenchments were announced;
- Screen all roleplayers; and
- Provide capacity to deal with complex cases and organised crime.
The committee would also compile instructions for Natjoints and the national crime combating forum to activate relevant departments and police units in affected provinces.
The SANDF said in a statement that Natjoints sits regularly to assess threats to national security. “If there is a perceived threat against national key points such as Eskom power stations, Natjoints meetings would look into such security risks or threats.”
Ramaphosa told the Sunday Times last week that he believed the latest round of load-shedding, which went to stage four for the first time since 2010, could be the work of the “remnants of state capture”.
The newspaper was reporting that the state would deploy spies and police to secure Eskom’s stations.
Ramaphosa met labour leaders this week to discuss the plans for Eskom and labour’s concerns that its unbundling into three separate entities would result in job losses.
One of the leaders at the meeting, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) general secretary David Sipunzi, said labour had questioned the deployment of police to power stations.
“The president of [trade union federation] Cosatu [Zingiswa Losi] said she heard police were deployed to stations. But there was no answer from [Police Minister] Bheki Cele or any of the other leaders who were there,” Sipunzi said.
On the issue of possible retrenchments, he said: “Our first point of departure is to withdraw labour, not destroy anything. It’s a surprise to me that they want police and the army to come to stations.
“As NUM we are in the dark about their intention to retrench and it is totally shocking to me. It is not policy to damage property and, as such, we believe the presence of the police is meant to provoke workers. Why do they need to deploy soldiers to protect retrenchments?
“We don’t believe a word … about no retrenchments or job losses. They are lying through their teeth.”