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Johannesburg - A large part of Joburg was still without electricity by late on Thursday morning after City Power technicians went on an illegal strike over proposed changes to their shift roster, randomly switching off the power supply to various suburbs.
Thursday morning’s cuts affected dozens of suburbs and brought traffic to a standstill. Joburg residents - many of whom were without electricity for most of Wednesday - woke up to no power, no hot water and then gridlock.
City Power said on Thursday that the widespread power failures on the West Rand and in northern Johannesburg could take up to three days to resolve due.
“We are currently experiencing power outages as a result of the strike, we have not been able to timeously attend to calls, resulting in a service backlog in these areas,” it said in a statement.
About 100 of its employees have embarked on an illegal and unprotected strike, because no dispute was raised with management.
However, according to an internal City Power document in The Star’s possession, strikers were told to return to work by 10am on Thursday. The notice warned “no work, no pay” and a lockout could be applied to those who fail to return to work.
In an urgent attempt to alleviate the crisis, at 11.30am on Thursday City Power’s director of engineering and acting managing director Louis Pieterse undertook to postpone all shift changes to November.
Joburg metro police spokeswoman Edna Mamonyane said while huge areas had been badly affected by outages, Roodepoort and Fourways were gridlocked during peak-hour traffic on Thursday morning.
“Traffic lights are not working and we do have pointsmen out, but the problem is too widespread for us to handle. There is a lot of road rage… and bumper bashings… as people get impatient,” she said.
Nelson Mandela’s Houghton home was plunged into darkness on Wednesday night. But by 9.30pm City Power arrived in the area and offloaded a large generator which was used to restore power to his street.
Also affected is the Jewish community which is celebrating Rosh Hashanah, a holiday that involves cooking and festivities.
One City Power technician, who gave his name only as Quinton, called in to Talk Radio 702 on Thursday morning to give the workers’ side of the story.
He said technicians had always worked from 7am to 4pm, and were on standby after hours. Only controllers and dispatchers worked different hours.
“City Power has to get another 600 people to work this new shift system properly,” he said, explaining that the proposed roster sometimes had only one person on duty, which was not practical.
When radio presenter John Robbie pointed out that the strike was illegal, Quinton said: “Well, they will basically have to fire every single one of us today, because we are all standing together.”
City Power on Thursday morning said it could not say when power would be restored and if striking staff members would face disciplinary action.
Large parts of the city have been without electricity since Wednesday afternoon, while others had been hit on Tuesday afternoon already.
Speaking on 702 on Thursday morning, Pieterse said they would take “appropriate action” if the strikers did not enter into discussions today.
Pieterse said City Power got a court order to interdict the strike early this morning and were working on a backlog of over 1 000 complaints from their hotline.
He said a shift policy was essential to their business model.
“We’re running a 24-7 business and customers are consuming electricity 24-7,” he said.
While City Power has contractors, they are not authorised to work on medium - or high-voltage lines.
Pieterse said while the strike was not sanctioned by any of the unions, most of the strikers were SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) members.
As of Thursday Samwu were unable to say what action, if any, would be taken against the strikers.
“We’re trying to get them (union members) to clarify what’s going on,” Samwu spokeswoman Phumlile Shange said.
The DA says residents have had difficulty in reporting the outages and getting sensible responses from the call centre and depots which appear, in many cases, to have been abandoned.
Dennis Hunt, DA spokesman on power, confirmed that it appeared that the wildcat strikes were in retaliation to the imposition of new working conditions which had, for many, led to a serious drop in take-home pay.
“The members of the DA sitting in the Section 79 oversight committee have for months drawn attention to the perilously low level of staffing at City Power, in many areas being below the full complement by 50 percent and more.”