Whither the Eskom crisis?


I am an irreconcilable opponent of the dirty, dangerous and damaging environmental and human costs of coal-fired power stations, which is why moves towards renewable energy must be fully supported. That is the first political point to make. But there are powerful vested interests in coal mining and therefore that such a miserable status quo continues, regardless of its consequences to workers, community health and the environment.  

But the threats currently looming on the horizon is even more serious in the short to medium term. In this regard the announcement by president Cyril Ramaphosa in his recent State of the Nation address, that the ANC government has decided to “unbundle” Eskom, the public power utility, has triggered massive trade union opposition. The unions, especially the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), are convinced that contrary to denials by Ramaphosa this “unbundling” is ultimately tantamount to privatization.

Going by experiences elsewhere I can understand Numsa’s concerns. The relevant literature will unmistakably show that privatization can take various complex forms, without the authorities needing to even mention the term privatisation. In this regard one has to ask: what really happens to the service in this process; who delivers it and on what basis; is it treated as a commodity that is sold at a price or is it a public good not denied, adequately, to those who are poor and cannot afford to pay?

It is partly those kinds of questions that ultimately concern Numsa and others. That is why democratic political control of vital resources such as electricity is of paramount importance, which in turn is why the raging debate about the fear of privatization and job losses are understandable. Two key things happen with privatized public services, no matter what form it takes, whether commercialization or outright privatisation: retrenchments often, if not always, occurs, and prices as often go up and up.

As often privatsation occurs by stealth, in which assets are handed over to the private sector incrementally and in camouflaged forms, so as to avoid a massive confrontation with labour in wholesale and overt privatisation. I think this is Numsa’s legitimate fear. What is called the Independent Power Producers (IPPs) represents in particular a threat of steadily increasing and encroaching privatization of Eskom. The other tactic is to deliberately run down a service and “talk up” a crisis in order to justify privatization.

Numsa is also right to view with concern the appointment by minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, of Italian company Enel, to investigate load-shedding problems. It appears they see it as a calculated part of setting the scene for the “unbundling” and its associated but incremental and subtle privatization. Naturally, since the unions involved firmly believe that it is a process that will lead to the privatization of Eskom they are validly concerned with job losses.

We must not also forget that it was the intention of the ANC government to eventually privatise Eskom, as was stated in the 1998 White Paper on Energy Policy. An incremental process of privatization through the IPP’s gaining an ever-increasing share of the energy market might be therefore a hidden agenda. Therefore, all the attempts to deny that the “unbundling” of Eskom is not a move towards privatization is not convincing to Numsa, its parent body, the South African Federation of Trade unions and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

But despite my full support for such reported concerns it must be stated very clearly that any sabotage of Eskom power stations by affected workers will only serve to deepen the crisis and dramatically escalate tensions. It will also probably be severely counterproductive in ways that will ultimately hurt not only unionized workers involved most but poor communities too, when power stations are actually sabotaged.   

However, the deplorable tactic of the chief executive of Eskom, Phakamani Hadebe, of warning of possible retrenchments if the application for a 15-17% increase in the price of electricity, is not successful, is itself reprehensible. This places the affected workers between a rock and a hard place and is therefore very unfair.   

The affected workers are evidently girding their loins for an all-out battle against the “unbundling” of Eskom, as a direct result of the current crisis in it, which is mainly attributed to the notorious mismanagement, incompetence and corruption at Eskom itself for many years, together with a government which did not decisively address a gathering electricity capacity crisis on its doorstep for over a decade. In the midst of an unprecedented economic and social crisis, when unemployment and poverty is at its highest since 1994, this resolve by workers to fight is perfectly understandable.


Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and former Cosatu unionist