Wildcat strike ends, but South Africa’s power crisis ‘far from over’

A shopper uses a rechargeable LED lamp to illuminate a shoe rack.

Photo credit: AFP

The week-long wildcat strike by hundreds of workers of South African power producer Eskom, which had plunged the country into multiple, multi-hour outages daily, has been settled – but the ‘power crisis’ is far from over.

Late Tuesday, the unions of the striking workers, who have been accused of intimidation, “economic sabotage” and of firebombing attacks on Eskom officials’ homes, said a 7 percent wage increase offer, plus housing benefits, had been accepted.

Eskom staff were due back at their post immediately, but the power utility, which had been running under severe systemic stress and which could have, at any time, brought the entire South African power grid to collapse, will not be able to immediately restore power lost to the strike action at four major utilities.

This means blackouts will continue, but at a reduced frequency. 

Protests erupted outside Eskom's offices near Johannesburg last year after the utility announced a further round of power cuts Phill Magakoe.

Photo credit: AFP

The increased wage bill will cost Eskom US$61.5 million, which it does not have, but that is a fraction of the cost of the multiple outings affecting industry, manufacturing and all other activities and pushing South Africa towards recession, estimated at around $200 million per day, at least, perhaps twice that, in direct losses.

The National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa), National Union of Mineworkers (Num) and Solidarity, also a mining and industry-related union, all reached agreement with Eskom, with both Eskom and Numsa having confirmed the signing of the deal.

The agreement brought to a close the wildcat strike, which was illegal and unprotected, but it is not the end of ‘rolling blackouts’, which are likely to continue for months to come, said Eskom, with most S Africans likely to have on average one daily outage during work hours.

Although blackouts were first experienced in 2008, this past week’s multi-hour outages, imposed at least thrice daily, have been the worst and most destructive to date.

One of the unions involved said, “(we) plead with the workers that the agreement has been signed, what they’ve been fighting for has been resolved therefore they must go back to work. As to when, (we) don’t know, (we) don’t want to commit”.

Eskom confirmed that it may take “days to weeks” before its system recovers, the stations now to be brought back on line having to go through all the standard restart procedures. 

South Africa's electricity provider Eskom is struggling with a mountain of debt and a portfolio of ageing coal-fired plants.

Photo credit: AFP

The most important and time-costly is the gradual process of synchronisation of each station’s output to the grid standard, required to maintain the stability of such a large power grid as Eskom has, by far the largest in Africa and very widespread, from the tip of Cape outside Cape Town— where Koeberg nuclear power station lies in the south-west— to the north-eastern, coal-rich region, where most of Eskom coal stations are clustered.

“It is important to note that while the workforce is returning to work, the system will still take some time to recover. As a result of the strike, maintenance work has had to be postponed, and this backlog will take time to clear,” said Eskom.

According to a Num union representative, union members have also asked Eskom to not take disciplinary action against workers who had failed perform their essential duties of keeping the country’s lights on.

However, if Eskom decided on disciplinary action, both Numsa and Num leaders said they would represent workers against such action.

While a wave of relief has rippled through stressed South African households and businesses, experience has taught this country that improvements on any one day in power supply can be reversed with no notice as ageing stations with an inadequate history of maintenance fail, sometimes in quick succession as a knock-on within a very fragile and vast distribution system, which itself is also an ageing infrastructural element in this country’s power supply framework.