SA faces a very bleak winter of electricity discontent
Experts warn Eskom strike should not be taken lightly
Economists and energy experts have warned that a current protest by Eskom workers who are threatening a national electricity shutdown could have dire consequences for the country.
Just the hint of a possible shutdown could negatively affect the economy.
Energy expert Chris Yelland said the real threat was from disruptions within the premises of power stations. Protests outside would not be a problem since power stations have enough coal stockpiles to operate for a month.
“While there have not yet been such threats, the problem comes in if there are disruptions within the premises. The power station bunkers only have enough coal in them for one day. If there is a disruption of the transportation of coal to the bunkers, and essential staff who operate certain equipment are stopped from going to work, then there will be an almost immediate shutdown and possible blackouts.”He said Eskom was in a bad financial position, with the demand for electrictiy dropping as consumers sought out alternative power supplies, the National Energy Regulator of SA denying their requests for high tariff increases, the price of coal rising and the utility being overstaffed.
Electricity demand is set to spike this weekend as two cold fronts slam into the country, with temperatures set to plummet and gale-force winds and snow expected.
SA Weather Services forecaster Edward Engelbrecht said one cold front was already here, with another due to hit the Western Cape on Sunday.
“Temperatures will drop to the low teens in a number of areas. Snowfall is predicted for the Drakensberg, with gale-force winds and low temperatures set for the Eastern and Northern Cape as well as the Karoo. Gauteng will also experience low temperatures.”
Thousands of Eskom workers, many of whom are essential services employees, picketed across the country on Thursday, reportedly blocking the entrances to eight power stations and stopping the delivery of vital coal supplies.
In a statement, Eskom said the generation and distribution of electricity across its network was constrained “due to the acts of sabotage and intimidation” by trade union members.
“There have been incidents of road blockades, attacks on staff, and willful damage of electricity infrastructure. As a result, all road coal deliveries have been stopped for security reasons. The safety of all our employees is paramount.”The utility said the worst affected power stations by the industrial action were Hendrina, Camden, Kendal and Arnot in Mpumalanga.
Eskom’s claims have, however, been dismissed by National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi as “propaganda” designed to portray its members as “savages”.
“Until we verify it ourselves we will not take anything Eskom says for granted.”
National Union of Mineworkers [NUM] spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu also denied the allegations. “It’s a case of Eskom not knowing what to do or how to handle this situation. Our members are embarking on pickets and are not doing anything to sabotage, intimidate or disrupt the supply of electricity.”
While Eskom is trying to secure an interdict to stop any protest action, workers and unions cannot say when their pickets will stop.
Numsa, NUM and Solidarity are demanding a 15% wage increase and housing allowances to be increased to R2,000. Eskom has offered a 0% increase.
Public Enterprises spokesperson Richard Mantu said Minister Pravin Gordhan had met with Cosatu leadership on Wednesday to understand workers’ concerns.
“He explained the current challenging environment, including contracting economic growth, fiscal constraints and Eskom's financial difficulties.”
He said while Gordhan was not in a position to instruct the Eskom board, he undertook to discuss the resumption of negotiations.
“Nothing should be done to compromise the growth of our economy.”Economist Azar Jammine said the country could not afford an electricity shutdown.
“The economy is weak, but you have a situation where workers feel that even if they damage the economy it cannot damage their wellbeing any further.
“The only difference between now and the 2008 blackout was that back then the economy was strong and still managed to grow by 3%, which it is not doing now.”
Economist Mike Schussler said without electricity there would be no manufacturing or mining, with people unable to shop or fill their cars with petrol.
“A host of economic data points to an economy in trouble and shows a slump in manufacturing, mining, retail and wholesale industries.
“While a one-day electricity outage will not be that much of a problem, the threat of an outage is enough to shock the economy and investor sentiment.”
He said there were other ways workers could make their point.
“Yes, corruption must be eradicated and salary disparities addressed, but we should not allow our country to be held to ransom.”