Johannesburg - Environmental NGOs are calling for an independent investigation into allegations that Eskom hired a security company to spy on them - and they won’t be playing nice until it happens.

Media reports in the past three weeks revealed that the energy provider signed a two-year contract with Swartberg Intelligence Support Services, from June 27, 2011 until June 28 this year.

The company was to provide services at Medupi, where one of the world’s largest coal-fired power stations is being built - a project deeply opposed by NGOs calling for clean energy in South Africa, and delayed by about a year because of labour unrest.

Documents leaked to Business Times had alleged Swartberg proceeded to collect highly personal information on employees, unions, political parties and NGOs, all while infiltrating the local community with upliftment projects to alter their views on Medupi.

On Tuesday, Earthlife, Greenpeace and groundWork temporarily pulled out of Eskom’s NGO forum in protest against the “possibly illegal” behaviour.

“It is extremely unethical to use the disguise of community engagement to spy on the same community,” said Greenpeace Africa executive director Michael O’Brien-Onyeka.

Earthlife Africa’s Joburg project co-ordinator, Tristen Taylor, said the actions were reminiscent of the apartheid era.

“Individuals and organisations have protected rights, like freedom from this sort of intrusive behaviour,” he said. “Eskom represents the state, and the state has no business in conducting undercover investigations.”

Eskom has since terminated the Swartberg contract and launched an investigation “to determine whether any laws were broken”.

“This behaviour is unacceptable and not in line with our values as a company,” said Eskom chief executive Brian Dames in a statement.

“Our people need to build trust with all our stakeholders.”

Not good enough, say the NGOs, who want all confidential information obtained by Swartberg handed over, a public apology from Eskom, and for senior management - including Dames - to be held to account.

They’re also calling for independent investigations by the public protector and energy regulator Nersa.

Neither Nersa nor Swartberg responded to queries.

“I don’t personally believe Eskom has the credibility to police itself, so an internal investigation is not good enough,” said O’Brien-Onyeka.

The groups said they would rejoin Eskom’s NGO forum once the matter was resolved, but would continue with their research and community engagement until then.

“If their intention was to get us to stop doing what we’re doing - no, it’s not going to happen,” said Taylor.

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The Star