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Durban - The fate of a massive foreign-funded R550 million contract to build one of South Africa’s first private power generation plants hangs in the balance with the project already shut down for a month because of continued violent attacks by dismissed workers.

Group Five Projects, which is building the Avon Power Peaking Plant at Shakaskraal on the North Coast for Italian consortium Ansaldo Fata, has been forced to get an urgent Durban High Court interdict against about 500 former employees “who are either participating or associating themselves with the anarchy”.

“The project is of national importance because it is aimed at generating additional power for Eskom,” Group Five’s human resources director, Cindyanne May, said in her affidavit.

She said the company was facing penalties of up to R1 million a day, to a maximum of R75.5 million, because of the delays.

The plant is one of two of its kind in South Africa – the other, in the Eastern Cape, is already operational – representing foreign investment of about $1 billion (R13.6 billion) in the country.

Workers on the Shakaskraal site – who were employed from the local community – first downed tools in an unprotected strike earlier this year and ignored an interdict granted by the Labour Court stopping any intimidation, threats and obstruction to other employees who wished to work, including subcontractors.

This resulted in mass dismissals of the workers.

May said after discussions, the workers were reinstated in terms of a collective agreement.

They returned to work on August 27, but soon after, the violence began again.

“This time it was worse and resulted in a number of injuries to employees and managers. There was also large-scale destruction of property and assets,” May said.

“On August 26, the employees surrounded the site office, intimidating and ultimately assaulting the contracts director, Chris Willemse, and supervisor Theo Janse van Vuuren who required medical attention.”

They also broke windows and set fire to a truck.

The workers were again dismissed and the site was shut down because the company could not ensure the safety of employees.

May said new workers were hired, but when the company tried to reopen the site last week a group – led by former shop stewards on site – took scaffolding off the site and blocked the public road, in full view of the police.

The group, armed with pangas, knobkieries, mallets and sticks, barricaded another access road with logs and tyres.

May said they also set fire to sugar cane fields on a private farm and when the farmer tried to stop them, his vehicle was stoned.

“We have suffered downtime for over a month due to this violent conduct,” she said, noting that the wage and salary bill every month was R14.5 million and the plant costs were R5.1 million a month.

“The propensity for violence and damage to property increases with each day that the unlawful gathering remains in place and criminal acts continue. They have recourse in terms of the Labour Relations Act should they feel aggrieved by their dismissals but have elected to conduct themselves unlawfully,” May said.

“All attempts to resolve this by the SAPS and local councillors have failed.”

The interim interdict prevents barricading of the public road and site entrance, damage to property, assault and intimidation of workers or gathering in the vicinity of the site.

The dismissed workers were given until today to oppose the interdict’s being made final. As of late Wednesday no notice of opposition had been received, Group Five’s attorney, Michael Maeso, said.

The Mercury