South Africa

In the aftermath of espionage scandal, Eskom and NGOs present united front

By Khadija Patel 12 November 2013

Eskom and environmental NGOs have patched up their differences after the state-owned utility admitted to spying on them and fully apologised for its actions. By KHADIJA PATEL.

On Monday, state-owned utility Eskom apologised for using a private security company at the Medupi power station in Limpopo to spy on environmental groups Earthlife Africa, Greenpeace and Groundwork. An investigation conducted by Eskom after the allegations surfaced in February this year has found that the management of the Medupi power station, which is currently under construction, had contracted Swartberg Special Agents to spy on stakeholders, including unions and employees, at the multi-billion rand project.

After the revelations were made, Earthlife Africa, Greenpeace and Groundwork withdrew from Eskom’s NGO Forum. They said they would only resume engagement with the power utility once an investigation into the allegations were made, a public apology from Eskom was issued and remedial steps taken to prevent such activities from occurring again.

In February, after the reports of espionage at Medupi were first revealed by Business Times, Eskom responded by terminating its contract with Swartberg. According to the paper, Swartberg MD Lukas Swart and Medupi general manager Roman Crookes had on 24 June 2011 signed a 24-page contract for the period 27 June 2011 to 28 June 2013.

The value of the contract is said to have been R10 million, but it appears only R1,5 million was actually paid to Swartberg. And at the time of culling ties with Swartberg, Eskom CEO Brian Dames said: “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 then instituted an investigation to determine whether any laws were broken by Swartberg and if indeed the state-owned power utility engaged such services at its other facilities.

The NGOs met with Eskom on Monday to be briefed on the findings of that investigation. They received the report of the investigators and assurances that Eskom would not resort to such measures again.

They also received the apology from Eskom that they demanded.

“The use of private companies to gather intelligence from stakeholders is unacceptable and not how Eskom does business,” the Eskom CEO said in a statement released in conjunction with the environmental NGOs. “To the extent that this may have happened as a consequence, even if unintended, is regrettable and Eskom apologises for this.”

“It appears that Eskom management, the top management – so that’s Brian Dames etc. – did not know about this,” Tristan Taylor, a project coordinator for Earthlife Africa in Johannesburg, said. “The first they heard about it was when we heard about it in the media.”

According to the investigation, then, Swartberg was contracted by the Medupi site management, unbeknownst to senior staff at Eskom. And as implausible as it may sound to the cynics among us, the NGOs have accepted the results of the investigation.

According to Eskom, Medupi security management has entered into the contract with Swartberg “to ensure protection of the site and to better anticipate threats to personnel and property following civil unrest at Medupi in May 2011.”

The full Eskom report has not been made available to the public.

Swartberg was reported by Business Times earlier this year to have opined on how well women working for the NGOs seemed to look after themselves — 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.

The information Swartberg passed on to Eskom staff at Medupi, Taylor argues, could just as easily have been gleaned through a phone call.

“We have nothing to hide and we are working toward the common good,” argued Greenpeace’s Campaign Director for Africa, Sylvain Tardy.

As spies go, however, Swartberg appears to have left much to be desired.

“They were very incompetent about what they did, Swartberg Intelligence, but the fact that Eskom thought this was acceptable is a very serious matter,” Taylor said.

Still, according to Taylor, Swartberg did collect the personal data of a Groundwork employee and one Earthlife employee.

“I don’t really know what the actual data is because Eskom and the lawyers passed on all the information from Swartberg to [a] law firm who will destroy the information after the police have decided to act or not,” he said.

Swartberg’s espionage on behalf of Eskom was not restricted to the environmental NGOs, either.

Other stakeholders who were singled out for attention include the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), whose members stoned Swartberg vehicles at Medupi after the allegations of espionage were first revealed. The trade union did not respond to queries about its reaction to the Eskom investigation.

Eskom’s acting spokesperson, Andrew Etzinger, told Daily Maverick that the trade unions and community activists who were victims of Eskom’s espionage would also be receiving an apology.

“The same process will be followed with other stakeholders,” he said.

And according to Taylor, it is in the information that Swartberg gleaned on community activists in Lephalale that does constitute a criminal case.

Sensitive information is said to have been collected about these individuals and it remains to be seen whether the South African Police Services will press charges.

In the meantime, however, the environmental NGOs have rejoined Eskom’s NGO forum after an absence of eight months, and Eskom has instituted disciplinary action against those members of staff who were responsible for the Swartberg contract.

And Eskom will also be “reviewing and strengthening” its internal processes to ensure its contractors do not exceed their stated mandate.

“Even if they were bad spies in the end,” Greenpeace’s Tardy said, “[the fact that a] state-owned entity like Eskom contracts somebody to spy on civil society and members of the community is a very serious issue.” DM

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Photo: Medupi Power Station near Lephalale in Limpopo as seen during a media visit on Thursday, 11 April 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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