/ 9 December 2022

Coal workers worry about the just transition

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Since Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana announced last year that the government would relieve Eskom of a large portion of its debt, markets have been on the edge of their seats waiting for more detail. (Getty)

As South Africa tries to shift to low-carbon energy, Eskom will shut down ageing coal stations, repurposing them as renewable energy plants. 

Eskom says no jobs will be lost. But people at Hendrina and Komati coal-fired power stations in Mpumalanga say they “don’t know what a just transition is”, creating concerns about their futures.

Komati is South Africa’s oldest power station. It was shut down in October and next in line according to Eskom’s plan is Hendrina, which is due to close between 2023 and 2025. 

Workers have several concerns about the transition, including that it would be short-lived work, that it would involve them having to relocate to different power stations and the threat of the devastation of small towns. 

An employee who works on Hendrina’s coal conveyor belts said: “So what will happen to us who have no knowledge of these renewables? That is terrifying.

“We just woke up and we heard that our friends in the nearby station [Komati] would be moved to other stations because Komati would be closing down and used for training.”

Another coal worker said the poor communication from Eskom had made them feel anxious. He was fearful that one day they would be told that Eskom had closed down and they were not prepared.  

“While I worked at Roshcon [a subsidiary of Eskom Enterprises Division] I used to be behind the generator for coal and feed the bands. But with solar the only work that will be available will be the installation. Once it is placed, what are the rest of the employees going to do because there won’t be work left?

“I am too old now to start afresh somewhere alone.”

Another worker said: “This is beginning to feel like those apartheid times, where fathers will be placed very far from their homes and families in the name of work.”

Pullens Hope, near Hendrina power station and the Optimum coal mine, is a small, quiet town and people are worried it will die, said an Eskom employee. 

“Businesses will want to relocate to find better places where they will get money. Think about it. When contractors lose their work, the owners of businesses will lose out, those who rent out rooms will be out of business, those who were selling here will go, crime will grow. That is what we imagine.”

Eskom spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha said no Eskom employees would lose their jobs because they would either be transferred to other power stations where their skills are required or would be retrained to be renewable energy technicians.

He said: “It is natural and to be expected that people who have relied on these institutions for economic opportunities for more than half a century will not easily accept or be happy when there are such changes.”

At Komati power station, Eskom wants to grow plants under some of the solar panels — a technique known as agri-voltaics, which could contribute to job creation for people living in the area.

Ward councillor Edward Nyambi (left) worries about unemployment. Photo: Marco Longari

Komati will also be used as a training facility in partnership with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre to reskill and upskill workers. 

The plant will also be used to manufacture solar microgrids.

But is that actually the case? The Mail & Guardian went to Komati to find out.

It is a grey, overcast day, much like the mood in the town. 

When asked why so many men in their work suits are sitting on the streets, a man in his thirties said, “We are looking for jobs.’’

Sipho Nkambule, a social services employee at Eskom, said they continue to work as normal.

“Although we know nothing is normal. When Hendrina closes, we will be affected greatly. It hurts because many people will lose their jobs. Many families rely on the power station and the Optimum mine. Schoolchildren who relied on their parents’ salaries will be affected; poverty will increase.”

A former Komati worker said renewable energy is a pipe dream. 

“Show us a country that has successfully used renewables. Look at even richer countries, [they] are coming back for that same coal. What is South Africa doing?”

Many who were employed by Eskom on a contract basis say they had lost hope because they lacked skills needed for renewable energy.

“We just woke up to a notice that there is no longer work from our bosses. We have been faced with the reality that the only thing that is left now is to resort to crime. We ask that the government opens space in prison because that is what we are going to do to survive. We have families to feed and, without money, that will be a problem,” the contractor said.

However, a contractor at Roshcon said he is surprised that people are unaware of the transition because, in 1997, they were told that the life expectancy of the station was 25 years “and the 25 years they were waiting for is here.” 

He said the biggest issue people were struggling with is acceptance. “The community must accept change.” 

Eskom’s Mantshantsha said every power station has a date on which it will start operating, and a date on which it will cease to operate. Both these dates are known and publicly communicated. 

“Similarly, each job opportunity and the contract has a start and end date, which are both communicated upfront to all relevant stakeholders.”

Edward Nyambi, ANC ward four councillor in Steve Tshwete local municipality, expressed frustration with Eskom.

“They [Eskom and the government] did not provide us with any warning or solutions. What must happen when a company does something of this magnitude, it must be done in phases, not taken off so abruptly because you offset people’s lives.”

Daniel Mnimele, president of the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), said they have had numerous consultations on the just energy transition with various stakeholders in Mpumalanga and that these are not a once-off event, but are continuing. 

Nyambi argued that the assessments were just to tick a box. “The assessments they did were a joke because it was a week before the plant was shut down. They don’t care about the assessment results. 

“The people of Komati objected to the closure, but a week later it was closed and so was the conversation. They did not come back to the same people to tell them this is how we will improve your lives,” he said.

“I asked [Eskom] for an alternative because when I walk down the street I am stopped by the residents who are demanding answers from me, and they get frustrated when I tell them I have not heard from Eskom or the department of public enterprises.”

Mnimele said the PCC is working with various unions on outreach programmes to inform workers about what will happen. 

“There is no lack of communications between the PCC and any other party and the PCC has honoured all invitations in Mpumalanga” but, he added, better consultations between people living in the area, Eskom workers and the government were needed.

“Our view as the PCC is that government and industry must improve on their consultations processes, make information available and ensure that workers and beneficiary communities are taken along at every step of a major disruptor like decommissioning a power station.” 

He explained that the PCC has committed to additional consultations on the Just Transition Investment Plan in Mpumalanga in January and February. Awareness campaigns would also be increased and it involved partnering with local NGOs and schools to expand their information sharing.