South Africa

Eskom’s Medupi-sized headache

By Khadija Patel 4 February 2013

Eskom’s contested attempts to remedy the electricity shortfall in South Africa have come under the spotlight (pun intended) once more after it was found to have spied on stakeholders in and around the construction of the Medupi power plant in Lephahlale, Limpopo. KHADIJA PATEL works out what Eskom is so concerned about.

On Sunday the Business Times reported that state-owned utility Eskom had terminated its contract with Swartberg, a special services firm that is alleged to have spied on stakeholders at the Medupi power plant on behalf of Eskom. According to Loni Prinsloo writing in the Business Times, Swartberg infiltrated the ranks of trade unions, communities and environmental activists.

Business Times reportedly received numerous documents that show extremely personal information has been gathered on individuals in stakeholder groups. One example is of two organisers of Earthlife Africa, a green lobby group fighting against possible environmental harm caused by the construction of the Medupi power station.

The document is said to detail the Swartberg agents’ opinion on how well women seemed to look after themselves at one particular time — what colour nail polish they were wearing, their ethnicity and religious beliefs, whether they spoke English or not and how educated they appeared to be.

Other information included mobile numbers and when they last voted.

It’s little wonder, then, that Business Times reports workers at Medupi made their anger felt by throwing rocks at Swartberg vehicles.

Eskom has sought to distance itself from Swartberg, protesting that such cloak and dagger behaviour is fundamentally un-Eskom-like.

“This behaviour is unacceptable and not in line with our values as a company. Our people need to build trust with all our stakeholders. Eskom and its communities need to live together for generations, so we need to trust each other,” Eskom CEO Brian Dames said.

And just as these revelations of surveillance on stakeholders were made, construction work at Medupi ground to a halt. The construction of the 4,764 MW coal-fired power plant has been mired in mistrust, suspicion and contention.

Last month workers affiliated to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) issued demands that Eskom do away with the existing labour agreement in favour of the agreement in place when construction first began. Workers claim they are not being paid double on weekends, and that bonuses are being unfairly and unequally paid.

Meanwhile an Eskom spokesperson told Reuters the labour unrest posed a “material threat” to the timelines of the project, which was supposed to start generating power before the end of this year.

Medupi is Eskom’s largest single investment in its 84-year history, and the sheer scale of the project is evident in reports that construction work on the project sees to the employment of more than 8,000 workers. And so far, Eskom has not been particularly successful. Last year, during another strike, several workers were injured and a bus was burnt.

Tetchy labour relations, however, are not the sole bugbear of the project.

Medupi’s reliance on international financing, particularly the $3.75-billion loan from the World Bank, lent a novel dimension to the controversy that met the announcement of the project. Writing in the academic journal Global Environmental Change, William Rafey and Benjamin K. Sovacool say, “Civil society organisations accused the government of ‘using blackmail and cheap tricks’, while World Bank spokesman Sarwat Hussain retorted that ‘the campaign (by the NGOs) is based on half-truths accusing the bank of a range of issues’.” They point out that the firestorm of rhetoric between NGOs opposing the project and the South African government led the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy and Norway to abstain from the World Bank vote.

The controversy has not abated ever since. Some 65 South African civil society organisations and an even greater number of Western environmental groups are said to be involved in protest action against Medupi.

At the heart of the project lies a mistrust in the assertion from government, and indeed Eskom, that such a large, coal-fired plant is actually the best thing for South Africans. There remains suspicion that the entire project is the end-result of a cleverly concocted scheme set to profit a select few while the rest of the country spends years paying the debt incurred. The success of Eskom in Medupi depends on quelling this suspicion and showing instead that everything is indeed as they it is. The success of Eskom in Medupi rests on them assuring the South African public that the plant will generate 10% of the country’s electricity once complete and not much else. And yet by paying such meticulous attention to the stakeholders in the project, someone in Eskom realises the fragility of the entire project. 

Rafey and Sovacool rightly say, “ [Medupi is] emblematic of future global struggles to simultaneously expand access to energy services and minimise environmental degradation”. Moreover, Medupi illustrates the struggle to ensure the right thing is done by South African people when government pursues such grandiose projects.

The project itself may bring relief to electricity shortages in the country, but it does also bring with it acid rain, coal mining and climate change; beyond that, through the grievances of workers, it brings to bear the human cost of the project and a wider South African prevalence of workers jostling with unions to have their own say count.

In late 2006, during the initial stages of ‘‘Project Alpha,’’ government contracted historians to find a more suitable name for the plant. Eskom’s researchers were commissioned to determine an indigenous phrase that would ‘‘reflect the cultural heritage’’ of the project’s location in Lephalale. Eskom eventually settled on Medupi, translated as the ‘‘rain that soaks parched lands, giving prosperity”.

To quote Rafey and Sovacool again, “Everyone, after all, wants rain that soaks parched lands and brings prosperity. However, that possibility will depend not on who performs the most compelling rain dance, but who builds the most sustainable irrigation system.” DM

Read more:

  • Outrage over Eskom’s spying tactics at Medupi project in Times LIVE

Photo: Workers are seen in front the construction site of Eskom’s Medupi power station, a new dry-cooled coal fired power station, in Limpopo province, June 8, 2012.  REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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