ANALYSIS: Eskom, unbundling, and telling the truth - how to avoid an unnecessary showdown

There is a looming showdown between Eskom and the unions over its unbundling plans, and it is not going to be pretty. Soon, it will become newly-appointed Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter’s biggest headache. It is also entirely avoidable.

It is clear that the time for drawn-out discussions over what to do about Eskom has come and gone. Yet there has been very little effort by Eskom to talk to the thousands of people who stand to lose the most when the inevitable changes come. 

Unions say that the first time Eskom briefed them on the unbundling of the power utility was on August 23, a day after the same plan was presented to Eskom executives.

It detailed how Eskom will be unbundled into three entities, and underlined the dire state of the parastatal. The plan was welcomed by a society desperate for some movement on the crisis at Eskom.

After the August 23 meeting, Eskom chairperson and then-acting CEO, Jabu Mabuza, said he hoped this would provide “fertile ground” for constructive dialogue with the unions on the issue.

But the majority union at Eskom, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is not happy, and has dug its heels in in its blanket opposition to unbundling. This belligerent opposition to change is being echoed by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, in increasingly shrill decibels.

Yet Num’s nexus gripe right now is not just the unbundling, but Eskom’s failure to talk timeously and honestly about what it plans to do. 

Eskom is obliged by law not only to consult with workers over any restructuring plans, but to do so meaningfully. And it is simply not in Eskom’s best interest to make enemies of the workers who keep the lights on.

The end of coal

Eskom is drowning in debt. 

It is also the custodian of a fleet of 15 coal-fired powered stations. Some of these are up to 20 years past their sell-by date; most have not been properly maintained, and all are environmentally disastrous. Research shows that they cause sickness and death for thousands of people who live in their ambit. 

Those who think Eskom can go on burning coal forever, now meet climate change denialists on the fringes of mainstream scientific discourse the world over. The world is transitioning away from coal.

And this is the advice of everyone from the World Bank to activists and experts in the field: the transition needs to be a just one.

This does not mean that hard decisions can be avoided, and the unions have not done themselves any favours: they have been belligerent in their opposition of anything from job cuts to freezes on wage increases. Violent strikes have made them deeply unpopular.

But we cannot brush aside the workers they represent. We do not live in a country where everyone can survive retrenchment. We live in a country where the majority of people are affected by a combination of soul-destroying unemployment, and devastating poverty. 

Saving Eskom, and creating a society where fewer people will die thanks to its pollution, has to take the poor and working class into account.

And the problem with demonising unions is that this obliterates the agency of the thousands of workers that they represent, and the families and communities that rely on them.

These are people who often do not have access to credit, or middle-class extended families who could be a buffer if they lose their jobs. They also understand how mines and power stations operate at an almost granular level. Their voices should not be disregarded as the lowly opinions of unskilled men. 

Telling the truth 

Thrown into this mix is a sustained misinformation campaign about Eskom and the coal industry in particular. It is being waged on social media by coal lobbyists, state capturers and their ilk. It is also being waged on the ground.

Some workers have been told that the closure of Eskom’s coal power stations is completely avoidable.

But it is not. 

Ramaphosa himself has said job losses will not happen at Eskom. The message was also told to the NUM by Ramaphosa, Pravin Gordhan and Jeff Radebe in a closed-doors meeting earlier this year.

If the message is that job losses can be avoided during restructuring, and that the coal power stations will stay open forever, when that is not possible, that is a problem De Ruyter cannot sidestep. Eskom must tell the truth.

The importance of truth in this ecosystem of information cannot be overstated.

Yet we also cannot afford a situation that like which has unfolded at Nedlac, where the Integrated Resource Plan – the country’s long term energy plan – was laboured over for months. Insiders say that process has frustratingly slow and muddied, with facts constantly overridden by sectarian interests.

Unions also need to be responsible. They must bring proper alternatives to the table, and be timeous and honest in their consultations, too.

Somewhere, there needs to be a middle-ground, between the need to move quickly to save Eskom, the environment and our economy, and the need to treat workers fairly.

The idea that the unions can be dragged along kicking and screaming might appeal to the elite political classes, but this path ends only one way: strikes, conflict, and stasis.

It doesn’t have to be that way.