/ 11 December 2022

Just transition: Mpumalanga Eskom employees in the dark


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.

Repurposing the Camden, Hendrina and Grootvlei coal-fired power plants with renewable generation capacity will come with a $2.6 billion price tag, Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan said in a recent reply to parliamentary questions. 

The funding is anticipated to come from a combination of development finance institutions, climate funds and the private sector. 

Touted as the cultural heartland, Mpumalanga is, in reality, the country’s coal heartland, producing more than 80% of South Africa’s coal. 

The Mpumalanga Highveld is home to 12 of Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power stations, Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant in Secunda, and the NatRef refinery in Sasolburg. Weaning the coal-dependent region off coal is a cornerstone of the government’s transition plans.


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.

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.

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.” 

What’s happening at Hendrina and Komati

Our team went to Hendrina and Komati power stations to find out how it is for the workers on the ground.

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.’’

The Hendrina power station looms over the town.

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.

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.”


Grootvlei, near the town of Balfour, was constructed in the 1960s and mothballed in 1990 because of excess power at the time. In 2013, former president Jacob Zuma reopened it, after a R7.2 billion upgrade. Grootvlei will reach the end of its operational life in 2027, Eskom said.

At Grootvlei, the reskilling and retraining of workers on renewable energy has not started. Eskom has secured a R180 million grant from German development bank KfW to establish a renewable energy training facility at Grootvlei and “discussions are underway”.

Last year, Eskom and the World Bank commissioned a technical study into the repurposing of Grootvlei, Komati, Hendrina and Komati power stations. “This has already resulted in repowering and repurposing to take place at the Komati coal-fired power station that stopped operating at the end of October 2022,” Eskom said.

A senior employee at Grootvlei, who did not want to be named, said: “The sad part is that we learn about these just energy transition things from the media, rather than our own space at work. Until today, we don’t know what the training and skills will entail but the money has already been sourced.

“The only thing we know as Eskom permanent employees is that we are assured we are not going to lose jobs. How [this is possible] we do not know. 

“By 2035, we will be phasing out 10 Eskom power stations. That means we’ll be left with only five coal-fired power stations. And then they said by 2040, only two will be left [Kusile and Medupi]. There’s no way that those two power stations can absorb everybody,” he said.

“We will [initially] be transferred to other power stations but we are members of society. In our society we have people that are employed in Eskom permanently and people employed on a contractual basis.”

More than 60% of Grootvlei’s workforce are contractors. “So, basically, they will lose their jobs,” the technician believes.

The technician lives in the nearby town of Heidelberg, where he bought a house and raised a family. Their future is uncertain.

“If we close [Grootvlei], maybe we get to choose where to go. The better place for me is Kriel power station but the plan is saying that five years later they’re closing that plant, so I will keep on moving and moving … Then it comes to a point where you say, maybe it’s better to quit Eskom, but you don’t know where to go,” he said, adding that Grootvlei’s engineers had stated the plant had a lifespan until 2035.

“Even if there can be other options, you are saying this person needs to leave [their] family and relocate or create some divorces,” said one worker. “That’s unjust … Other countries had an option to try new things under their transitions, without shutting down what existed until they’re sure that ‘this works for us’.”

Another Grootvlei employee said the plant is all she knows. “I trained at this plant, I’ve been here my whole life … so now if they say, go home or find another job elsewhere? I’m skilled in power generation. That’s all I know. We are not sure with this new energy that’s coming, is it going to come with its own people that are trained or are we going to be retrained from scratch?”

The workers fear the area will become a ghost town. 

“Communities and businesses will suffer — people will be retrenched,” said one person. “Eskom employees bought houses around this power station, so now what must they do with them? They will have to sell but to whom? Who would want to come live here?”

The response

Eskom said information regarding Grootvlei’s employees may not be shared because “HR are still in the process of consulting with organised labour”.

Eskom said socioeconomic assessments have been and are being conducted for a number of Eskom’s older coal-fired power stations, including Grootvlei. “The report for Grootvlei with the detailed mitigation and implementation plan will be released for public comment once finalised” early next year. 

In support of a just transition, it had signed a letter of intent with the Netherlands embassy. “The aim of the grant-funded agricultural-related studies at Grootvlei are to determine the most applicable climate-smart, labour-intensive farming and agricultural related repurposing opportunities for the site.” 

This is to create a “positive social, economic and environmental impact on the surrounding area”, and to ensure local people’s involvement. Discussions on plans for agriculture and horticultural activities at Grootvlei are still underway.

Blessing Manale, the head of communications and outreach at the Presidential Climate Commission, said the reality was once power stations reached end of life it was unaffordable to keep running them.

“We still keep our vintage cars, but we don’t keep them to take the kids to school because they won’t make it … That is what these power stations will become — vintage, non-productive. And no one is going to give you money for coal [in 2035].”

He also said when it had started its consultations, it found a “vacuum of outreach and community engagement”, which had built a lack of trust. 

“Only few people understand [the just energy transition]. You have got to have the best of the best of our environmental NGOs and activists building the charge. So, the woman that does pap and steak does not know tomorrow the [coal] worker might not come because the environmental NGO is fighting high-level issues about fossil fuels.” 

The PCC had found that there “is quite a lot of social distance” between people at local level and the national discourse on the transition. 

“When President Cyril Ramaphosa said we’ll do a social compact, we said the PCC will contribute to that by mobilising communities around issues — the just transition, jobs, the future of coal, community empowerment,” Manale said, describing this as a new model for managing the climate crisis at local level.