Cops probe elections link in Eskom strikes

2011-05-31 16:45

Cape Town - Police are probing a possible link between local government election campaigning and the violence that erupted at the Medupi power plant in Limpopo in early May, Eskom said on Tuesday.

"We were asking why this turned violent and we believe there might be a link with the local government elections," said Kobus Steyn, a senior general manager for construction at Eskom.

"Local elections tend to have more of an influence on workers than national elections. Candidates try to get constituencies behind them.

"At Medupi, police are specifically investigating this, they are investigating local politicians. At Kusile, we don't really know what happened."

Steyn was speaking on the sidelines of an Eskom briefing to parliament's portfolio committee on public enterprises about labour protests linked to the employment of foreign workers and the demobilisation of temporary construction staff at the two power plants.

Eskom shut down Medupi on May 10, after 500 workers set cars alight at the site. Days earlier, it suspended construction at Kusile, near Witbank, after 4 000 workers went on the rampage, throwing stones and torching cars, cranes and offices.

Four workers are out on bail awaiting trial for arson, damage to property and attempted murder, though according to Steyn there were no serious injuries. Other strikers were facing disciplinary hearings.

He told MPs though the protestors were not employed by Eskom but by contractors, the power supplier was working with trade unions NUM and the Building Construction and Allied Workers Union (BCAWU) to settle the grievances that prompted the illegal strikes.

The company has also spoken to Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale, who was very supportive of efforts to resolve the situation, he said.

At Medupi, the contractors are Murray and Roberts and Hitachi, and at Kusile, where strikes began in April, Roshcon and KCWJC. Here, the two contractors suffered considerable damage after 11 vehicles and two large cranes were damaged.

In total, there are some 17 500 workers at the two plants of which 400 are from abroad, notably a group of Thai welders and pipe-fitters employed by a sub-contractor for Hitachi.

"Claims made are that these forms of employees are not scarce in South Africa and such opportunities were supposed to be given to fellow South Africans."

Steyn said work by Roshcon and KCWJC remained suspended pending the outcome of labour processes but all other construction at Kusile had resumed. At this stage, he said, there was little risk the delay would affect overall progress at the plant.

"At the moment the work being done by these two contractors is not on a critical part of the project."

Safety measures

Eskom said it was surprised by the violence and was doing what it could to prevent a recurrence.

"The strike was not a surprise but the violence was a surprise," said Eskom managing director Bhabhalazi Bulunga. "We have to make sure every worker on site is safe."

New safety measures included installing surveillance cameras.

Steyn said Eskom had sympathy with the strong feelings about employment at its new plants. In nearby local communities, unemployment of as high as 40 or 50 percent meant that people watched closely whether jobs went to locals, he said.

In addition, demobilisation once a particular stage of construction was completed, had a devastating impact on poor families.

People who had acquired skills through a power plant project, suddenly found themselves out of work.

"This will continue unless the money is found for new infrastructure projects," he said.

Kannan Lakmeeharan, a divisional manager for Eskom's delivery unit, said work at Medupi was 40% completed and at Kusile 18%, and labour disputes were not expected to derail progress, provided contractors could make up for days lost to the strikes.

Medupi's first unit is expected to come online in 2012 and Kusile's in 2014. Together the plants are supposed to add almost 10 000 megawatts to South Africa's electricity grid.

Lakmeeharan reiterated Eskom's promises that South Africans would not see a repeat of the power blackouts that hit the country in 2008, but warned that demand was steadily rising.

Read more on:    eskom  |  elections  |  politics

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