It remained difficult to resume work at Eskom’s Medupi power station construction site as there were fears that workers who reported for duty faced a risk of being stoned, the power utility said.
The Medupi construction site has been closed for more than a month now after violent protests that left 25 workers injured on January 15. Eskom’s management took a decision to suspend operations after these injuries.
And just when the utility was counting on progress in the ongoing negotiations between the contractors and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) so that operations would get back to normal “as soon as possible”, an Eskom vehicle was torched in a township of Lephalale, where Medupi is located, on Thursday night. Forty-six workers were arrested in connection with the incident, which also left a police car damaged.
Eskom spokeswoman Hilary Joffe said although an Eskom vehicle was torched, the incident did not take place near Medupi and there had since been a strong police presence around the power station.
“We are reviewing the situation. We condemn the acts of violence. Any Medupi worker who will be found to be connected [to the violence] will face legal and/or disciplinary action,” she said.
Limpopo police spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi said that although the incident took place in Marapong, which is also near to Eskom’s Matimba power station, it was linked to the Medupi protests.
Stephen Nhlapo, Numsa’s sector co-ordinator at Medupi, said it was incorrect to conclude that the incident involved Numsa-affiliated workers because the whole community was angry.
“They are angry that their family members have been locked out [of work] for six weeks and also the fact that they are not benefiting from this project. Poverty is widespread in Marapong and this multibillion-rand project has only benefited a few,” he said.
Nhlapo said talks with the employers had reached a deadlock last week because Alstom and Hitachi Power Africa withdrew everything that had been put on the table. This was because the two parties had not reached a resolution on discipline, which was the last outstanding issue keeping workers from resuming work.
“The employer is very arrogant. It is in their own interest that they delay resolution,” Nhlapo said.
Joffe said Eskom had not quantified the amount of damages since the protest action began. However, the utility’s biggest concern was that striking workers were throwing stones at their colleagues.
“The striking workers are the minority of the workers on the site. But those who aren’t participating in the strike have been stoned… It has not been possible to bring workers back to work,” she said.
About 1 100 Numsa-affiliated workers employed by Alstom, which has a contract to provide Medupi’s instrumentation and control system, went on protest on January 11. But it was when they were joined by workers contracted by Hitachi, the largest contractor on the site, that Eskom was forced to close Medupi due to violence.
Last week Eskom said this labour unrest posed a material threat to Medupi’s ability to deliver first power to the grid by the end of the year.