The communities of the Highveld Region of Mpumalanga, home to most of Eskom coal-fired power stations, are fighting on both fronts of the electricity crisis: there’s the economic effects of loadshedding, and then the closure of coal power stations. It’s an untenable situation for most locals, and now they also face further penalties because of increasing electricity tariffs and income loss from underperforming power stations.

“The challenges to these power stations are known, it is in fact disturbing that the General Manager of Tutuka power station in particular is a failure and yet he is still occupying the position,” says National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Highveld Deputy Regional Secretary Thapelo Malekutu.

“Since he arrived at Tutuka, the power station is underperforming. His focus is on bodyguards that are always surrounding him, as if he is acting a movie but suffering from a colossal failure to turn around the power station.”

Given the revelations around the attempt on Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter’s life, you would be hard-pressed to accuse the GM in question, Sello Mametja, of being overly cautious.

Even the outgoing Eskom CEO was quick to call out the excellent work Mametja did to expose criminal syndicates contributing to the corruption at the plant.

Tutuka Power Station (Kaefer Group)

With an energy availability factor of under 25 percent, Tutuka leads the top six problematic power stations in the Eskom fleet – namely Duvha, Majuba, Kusile, Matla and Callide.    

Malekutu named some of these power stations while expressing NUM concerns. The union is worried that loadshedding would continue to engulf the country because of the power stations such as Kendal, Matla and Tutuka were not operating in full capacity.

Meanwhile its trade union counterpart, National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), says that loadshedding was being used to justify privatisation because Renewable Energy power was not enough to light up the entire country.

Banging the baseload drum

“You cannot power the economy on renewable energy. The current fleet of power stations is capable of delivering that capacity. The problem is that there is no appetite from Eskom, Pravin and Cyril to maintain the coal fired fleet due to calls by privately owned renewable energy companies to dismantle all of them without a viable solution,” said Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, the national spokesperson for NUMSA.

She said that the rolling out more renewable Independent Power Producers (IPP’s) would not solve the problem because Renewable Energy was not a sustainable form of energy to power an economy.

Hlubi-Majola cited the classic anti-renewables rhetoric, listing solar energy dependence on the sun as a cause for concern when there are outages in the evening. While it is true that solar energy is not available to kick-in and supplement the grid at night, it could be used as part of the energy mix during the day.

“We will still need coal or nuclear to drive the economy. The Eskom system operator 2021 expressly states, ‘improve plant performance fleet as this remains the largest lever to restore system adequacy by expediting the Reliability Maintenance Recovery Program to improve predictability of performance in the future,’” Hlubi-Majola continues.

“What this means is that by Eskom’s own assessment, the fastest solution to ending load shedding is to fix the current coal fleet which we have. We have been failing to fix the fleet because we are led by a clueless team of Eskom executives who have no idea how to execute this work properly.”

Coal mine in Mpumalanga (The Sierra Club/Flickr)

Mametja took over the Tutuka reigns at the beginning of 2021 and quickly discovered his predecessor’s involvement in fuel oil fraud. That bust implicated 20 Eskom officials and exposed the underbelly of criminality that negatively affects the power stations in Mpumalanga.

Tutuka’s EAF dropped by nearly two thirds during the management change because it, like many other coal power stations, had been horribly neglected on the maintenance side.

De Ruyter pointed to these changes as key to bringing some loadshedding relief to  South Africans in the coming months.

Money for nothing

The recent price-hike for electricity that is said to go into effect on 1 April 2023, despite the fact that the country is experiencing devastating loadshedding, is out of touch with reality according to trade unions.

NUM said that the tariff increase announced by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) was a crippling blow to the consumers and small businesses that were heavily constrained under load shedding and asking them to pay more for a service which they were not getting was insanity.

“How can Eskom be granted a price increase when the country is under rolling blackouts, what is it that consumers are paying for exactly,” asked Luphert Chilwane, the spokesperson for NUM, during an interview.

He argued that the electricity tariff increase was way beyond what consumers could afford and to make matter worse, the impending shut down of ageing coal power stations by Eskom to repurpose them as renewable energy plants, would have a devastating impact on the economy as hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost in the coal sector.

The union which has a membership of 30,000 to 40,000 workers in the coal sector industry, said that the rolling blackouts and job losses would bleed the economy dry to a point of a recession.

Chilwane said the shutting down of South Africa’s coal industry was a grave mistake because it will not only affect the workers, but the entire value chain of the coal economy.

(Jan Truter/Flickr)

This includes truck owners who have contracts with Eskom to transport coal, food vendors, tourism and accommodation businesses and many others.

“Eventually, towns such as eMalahleni in Mpumalanga will become ghost towns because there will no jobs left and people will be forced to move to other areas and this will have an impact on crime and poverty,” he said.

Meanwhile, the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) said that electricity tariff increase would also negatively affect municipalities that already owe Eskom billions in unpaid bills.

“The impact on municipalities means that the cost of production will increase significantly which in turn will cause the price of goods and services to go up,” said Thamsanqa Ngubane, chair of Electricity and Energy Provision and Public Works for SALGA.

He said the fact that municipalities owed so much money to Eskom was a clear sign that consumers were not able to afford the price of electricity because they are the ones who default on their payments to municipalities.

Ngubane said that household would have to now decide between buying food or paying for services such as electricity.

While it can be argued that the trade unions are fighting for their own best interests and ignoring the self-sabotage happening within the coal communities, it is also true that the crime syndicates are paying the bills for many desperate households.

We are yet to see how just the transition to cleaner forms of energy will be to these embattled outposts in South Africa’s coal heartland, but at least the plan says that nobody will be left behind.   

Read more about the Just Energy Transition in this week’s Financial Mail.

/explain/ has partnered with FM to bring South Africa all the details of the country’s energy transition over the next couple of weeks.