23/11/2010 Eskom CEO Brian Dames during an announcement of their interim financial results at Sunninghill JHB. (881) Photo: Leon Nicholas

Lephalale - Construction of South African state-run power utility Eskom's Kusile plant, due to start up next year, has been disrupted by an illegal strike, the company said on Thursday.

News of the problems at Kusile came as Eskom pledged to still get power out of its Medupi plant this year to ease pressure on the grid, despite construction delays including labour unrest that have put the goal in doubt.

“There is a strike at Kusile, it started sometime this week and people are offsite today,” Eskom chief executive Brian Dames told Reuters on the sidelines of a visit by journalists to the site of the Medupi power plant.

Eskom spokeswoman Hilary Joffe later clarified that about 2,000 of the 15,000 workers at Kusile had gone home and some construction had been suspended. Officials did not say what prompted the wildcat action.

Kusile is supposed to start up in late 2014 but Medupi is more urgent and getting it on line by the December 2013 target is seen as crucial for growth in Africa's largest economy, which is heavily dependent on the energy-intensive mining industry.

The national electricity grid is operating on razor-thin margins and the country is in a race against time to keep power flowing as demand peaks with the southern hemisphere winter setting in.

Public enterprises minister Malusi Gigaba told journalists at the Medupi plant site about 275 kms (160 miles) north of Johannesburg that: “South Africans must take extraordinary measures to save electricity. Life cannot continue as usual,” adding further delays would not be tolerated.

The start of Medupi has already been pushed back from a target of 2012.

Construction was suspended for several weeks earlier this year because of labour protests.

Gigaba said the government was hoping to make up for the delays by increasing shifts for the construction crews.

Medupi is the first new coal fired power station Eskom has built in 20 years and will add 4,800 megawatts, or more than 12 percent, to the grid by the time it is completed in 2016.

“Medupi is on a tight schedule to deliver first power to the grid from its first unit by the end of 2013,” Eskom said in a presentation to journalists during the visit to the plant. - Reuters