South Africa

Op-Ed

Covid-19 divides and weakens the nuclear sector in South Africa

Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre, west of Pretoria. (Photo: Graeme Williams)

The coronavirus crisis is undermining the business plan and turnaround strategy at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa. The resulting losses are creating debilitating divisions between labour, middle and senior management, executives and boards of Necsa and its subsidiaries – as well as wage increases

Following a tumultuous operational and management period for several years, with massive financial losses, new Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) chairperson David Nicholls and acting CEO Ayanda Myoli presented a restructuring and turnaround plan to Parliament on 20 May 2020.

Mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe has also been intent on rationalising the management and structure of the companies making up the nuclear group – Necsa, Pelchem, NTP Radioisotopes and Ketlaphela – into a single company with one board of directors.

The restructuring and financial plan was intended to streamline management and to reduce the losses of the group from R160-million in the 2019/20 financial year ending 31 March 2020 to R61-million in 2020/21. Thereafter, the financial plan was to show a profit, rising from R205-milllion in 2021/22 to R1,4-billion in 2029/30.

While many considered the turnaround plan to be hopelessly optimistic even before the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa from March 2020, the impact of the national and international lockdowns are estimated to have resulted in the Necsa group taking a massive hit, which would increase the expected loss for 2020/21 to more than R300-million.

To put the structural rationalisation into effect, the board members of Necsa and its subsidiaries have been rearranged in such a way that all the boards have exactly the same members. This is a precursor to the appointment of external restructuring advisors to fold the separate legal entities making up the group into a single company with a number of operating divisions.

Also, as a result of the loss-reduction plans for 2020/21, and in line with the major cost-cutting initiatives required from Necsa and its subsidiaries, the board and executive management decided to suspend all wage and salary increases of workers, staff and management across the group.

In particular, this meant failing to honour the wage and salary increase commitments of the third year of a binding, three-year, collective agreement between each of the group companies and their workforces, by suspending salary and wage increments due on 1 April 2020.

The major trade union in the group, Nehawu, has painted the wage and salary freeze implemented by the executive management of Necsa group companies as being in defiance of their associated boards. However, Necsa group chairperson David Nicholls has confirmed that the boards and executive management of the group companies are fully aligned in respect of the wage and salary freeze.

In the meantime, on 26 October 2020, the Necsa branch of Nehawu sent a letter to the Necsa board (which is common to all Necsa group companies) in which, among other matters, demanding that the wage and salary increases of the three-year collective agreement be honoured, and giving the board seven working days to respond the demands.

It is further understood that Nehawu took the matter to the CCMA in efforts to resolve the dispute, but that the CCMA referred the matter to the Labour Court for resolution on the basis that this was not a labour dispute per se, but rather a matter of enforcement of an existing, binding collective agreement between the companies and their workforces.

In addition, a group of senior and middle managers at NTP Radioisotopes has sent a letter to the chairperson of the Necsa and NTP boards demanding that the binding three-year wage agreement be honoured as a matter of proper corporate governance, and that the salary increases frozen on 1 April 2020 be paid to management and staff within seven working days.

There have been suggestions that NTP Radioisotopes has shown good progress in recovering from a one-year shutdown by the South African National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) in 2018/19 on safety grounds, and is currently profitable and in a position to pay wage and salary increases as per the collective agreement between NTP and its workforce.

There have been concerns that, under these circumstances, failure to honour the collective agreement with workers, staff and management at NTP may negatively impact on workforce morale, attitude, safety and commitment to the Necsa group business plan and turnaround strategy presented to Parliament in May 2020. It may also further impact on the confidence of local and international customers in NTP – and on regaining and retaining their support and trust following the earlier production shutdown at NTP.

However, Nicholls has indicated that the fortunes of Necsa and NTP are inextricably “joined at the hip”; that NTP was started by Necsa and is dependent on the SAFARI-1 research reactor at Necsa for its feedstock, and that NTP is a commercial vehicle of Necsa that will shortly become fully integrated within Necsa as a single, legal entity.

It is understood that the Necsa boards were deliberating on 5 November 2020 on the matters of the collective agreement and the demands by Nehawu and middle and senior managers at NTP. In the meantime, the official response from Necsa’s head of corporate communication and stakeholder relations, Nikelwa Tengimfene, said:

“Necsa is cognisant of the crucial global role it plays in the supply of health-enhancing medical isotopes, through its subsidiary NTP Radioisotopes. The optimal and safe operation of the SAFARI-1 nuclear reactor is critical. However, Necsa’s financial position is negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Necsa, with all its subsidiaries, is engaging with labour on how to settle the last year of the three-year collective agreement”.

However, the devastating Covid-19 crisis, the dire financial position of the Necsa group and other state-owned enterprises, the state of the economy and the three-year public sector remuneration freeze announced by finance minister Tito Mboweni on 28 October 2020, make wage and salary increases at Necsa increasingly unlikely. DM

Declaration: Chris Yelland, author of this article, hereby declares that he is indeed an interested party in the business of Necsa, having recently undergone a medical procedure involving insertion of 80 tiny pellets containing radioactive iodine produced at NTP Radioisotopes into his prostate for targeted nuclear radiation therapy (Brachytherapy).

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  • As someone in the private sector, I am stunned that even in a crisis as desperate as ours, that Cosatu unions persist in positional bargaining instead of trying to find a way of collaboratively finding interim agreement to getting through what will be an immensely tough few years. Those in the private sector are immensely unsympathetic. We have been hard hit: wages have dropped or disappeared, so there is less money to stimulate the economy, therefore less taxes are being paid and therefore there is less money plain and simple for the government to pay public servants.
    Yelland says “There have been concerns that, under these circumstances, failure to honour the collective agreement with workers, staff and management at NTP may negatively impact on workforce morale, attitude, safety and commitment to the Necsa group business plan and turnaround strategy presented to Parliament in May 2020.” No one cares that the collective agreement is not being honoured – to Nehawu, your members’ fees which come from taxpayers are what keep you in office. If you and your members don’t have the compassion to help society, there may be no fees to be paid from.

  • Curious that the proposed “cure” for ESKOM is that it be unbundled into Generation, Transmission and Distribution; yet the cure proposed for NECSA is that its various subsidiaries be bundled together under a single board. I submit that the NECSA cure is more likely to lead to much needed gains in efficiency and what is needed at (a single) ESKOM is a Board elected by (and so answerable to) the stakeholders, i.e. the consumers. Bruce Danckwerts CHOMA Zambia