Interview with Camden NUM leadership
Amandla!: So we’re sitting here with load-shedding. It persists. In general, it gets worse. Why in your view is this the case? What is happening that is causing us to have this level of load-shedding or even load-shedding at all?
NUM CAMDEN: Clearly this issue of load-shedding is a man-made thing. We can’t hide behind the machines that are breaking each and every day. Look at the situation of Komati power station. When this current administration came in, they just decided to shut down the power station without giving them a valid reason. If you reduce the number of megawatts on the system, then you will suffer at the end of the day.
Look at the current situation at Hendrina power station. Eskom management decided to shut down six or so units at Hendrina power station. If you remove those numbers of megawatts from the grid, then we will experience such things as load-shedding. Hence, we believe that this thing it’s a man-made thing. They are trying to convince the community that this Eskom is not functioning well. We might as well privatise it and sell it.
A!: The story we are told is that Eskom has neglected to maintain the power stations over the years, so they’re in a bad state of repair. And we’re also told that there’s been a lack of investment in new power stations. Thabo Mbeki received advice from Eskom many years ago when he was the president that investment was needed. What is your view?
NUM: The issue of maintenance sabotage started in the era of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister. He refused to give Eskom enough money for general overhauls. It spread when the very same minister moved from finance to public enterprises.
Yes, indeed, we don’t have enough capital investment in terms of maintenance. However, as a country, we have 45,000 megawatts (45 gigawatts) of installed capacity. Currently, we are at 25,000-megawatt demand. So, with the installed capacity, we should be able to meet the current demand. But we are not because we have issues of breakdowns, which are due to maintenance. The very same maintenance which we believe has been sabotaged to ensure that we create room for the IPPs.
On lack of investment. Yes, the call for expansion in terms of power stations was made around 1998. That is true. The administration at the time ignored such calls. That is also evident. It has been admitted by those who were leading at the time. But we believed as the NUM that with proper capital investment into maintaining the ever-reliable old power stations, to ensure that we are not closing them down, we would not be in the position we are. You will also recall that during 2017 and 2016 we proved that this is achievable.
A!: So you’re saying in a nutshell that there has been a deliberate failure to put resources into maintenance to degrade Eskom in order to favour privatisation and IPPs. Another issue is the question of outsourcing. Has there been a process of outsourcing in Eskom? Did Eskom in the past do more of its own maintenance and now it outsources it, or is that not the case, and if so, what effect has it had?
NUM: We find at some power stations there are direct Eskom personnel for the service and a small percentage of outsourcing of skill. But here in Camden, it is a full-scale outsourcing setup. All the day-to-day activities are being done by contractors. We come in coordinating and managing the contractors. And it does create problems. I mean, if I think about it, logically, if I had my own people to do the job, it will be easier than going out to outsourcing and signing contracts and so on.
On the other hand, as SOEs, we are rendering assistance so that our brothers and sisters, they also get the opportunity to be part of employment.
A!: If we look at Camden now, what are the main causes of breakdowns in your power station?
NUM: Currently, we are sitting with the predicament of scope cutting; the scopes that are being cut are general overhaul (GO) scopes. They’ve been reduced. [The scope refers to the scope of the work that is conducted in, for example, a General Overall. When it is reduced, less maintenance is conducted and it is done less thoroughly. Ed]. If I can make a typical example, the normal scope for a GO will take six to seven months. It will cover all the critical components within the boiler and the turbine. Maintaining the turbine blades, for example, talks to the turbine life. But now, as we are seated here, we are looking at a 54 or 56 days GO. So there has been a humungous decrease in critical maintenance activities.
The second point that we believe is contributing to Camden’s breakdowns is spares. On our local forum with the Camden management, it was raised that we need to look into the issue of spares. The spares that we are getting, they’re not up to scratch. So they are hell-bent on making sure that they buy these useless spares for Camden power station so that we experience these breakdowns. Then tomorrow, they can come in and justify that: no man, we don’t need this power station, let us shut it down, because it’s breaking now and then.
But luckily for us, we have competence. Most of the staff here they are well trained. They know their stuff. So somehow we can dodge the bullet that is directed to us. Whatever they are planning, they are failing. Camden power station is an eight-unit plant. As we are talking to you right now, all of them are in service. They’re producing megawatts. We are supplying the grid.
The third point is the issue of coal. That one is very, very sensitive. If you look at the number of trucks that are coming in to supply coal, they’ve been reduced. You don’t know who’s doing that. But the number is being reduced. And sometimes the quality of the coal is questionable. We find that some of it is full of stones. If you supply stones to be burned in the boiler, directly, you’re damaging the boiler tubes.
A!: Camden is due to be decommissioned in 2025. Two questions: what is management saying about why it is being decommissioned? And what is your view of the reason?
NUM: What has been presented is that the station’s lifespan has come to an end. And this is because of the lifespan of the turbine. It is now a safety hazard. But this is affected by the reduction of maintenance.
They also include the environmental factor. The licensing of Camden Power Station permitted emissions of 1,100 milligrams per cubic metre. We had a waiver in the system for 1,100. We then renewed the license and it was taken down to 1,000. And now they want to renew the license again to take it down to 900 milligrams. And they raise that as a factor to say they are shutting down because of the emissions that are high.
We are given those reasons, but those reasons are also deliberately created by the person who is now producing them and presenting them to us.
A!: What are your plans currently for defending the jobs of the workers at Camden?
NUM: So far, we are told that no Eskom employee will lose his or her job. But we see Komati Power Station, for example. They had a strength of 500 employees in their fossil plant. But now, currently, after the decommissioning and repurposing, the plant will be run by roughly 180 people. And the same for Camden. We are plus or minus 430 in strength. But after decommissioning the plant, it will be run by almost the same number as Komati.
Now when you are checking in Mpumalanga as a whole, almost all the power stations will be shutting down. We’ll be left with Kusile. If no employee is going to lose his or her job, where are they going to take the employees? We are not getting a clear answer on this.
This year on the 10th of February at Camden Power Station, we submitted a memorandum of grievances/demands to Eskom. One of our demands was to save jobs. As the NUM, that is our clear position. We roped in the partners as well to come in and assist. The community. The student movement. They were here at Camden Power Station to try and assist in saving jobs.
Because when this power station is decommissioned, it is not going to affect the Eskom employees on their own. It’s going to affect the partners as well. And the contractors. I think there are close to 10,000. So looking at that number, being unemployed, it’s going to be a disaster. We submitted the memorandum on the 10th and they have sent in the cluster General Manager to com and respond to those demands.
And then last month or so we were visited by the Minister of Electricity. He came in here because I think you know, that he was doing the rounds. When he was engaging the masses, including the partners, and the contractors, there he promised that he will make sure that this power station is not taken down by the year 2025. We accepted his response. But we know that he’s politicking.
As worker’s leaders here at Camden Power Station, we’re not folding our arms. We are doing everything in our power to make sure that we save this power station, and get an extension if it’s possible.
A!: 10,000 contract workers at Camden compared to 500 permanent workers. And they’re making no guarantees about the jobs of the contract workers who are the big majority. And that will be devastating to the community. Can you just expand a bit more on the effect on the community – what the loss of those kinds of jobs, the effect it would have on the local community.
NUM: The town of Ermelo is only looking at Camden Power Station for its life. There are no industries here. So if they decide to shut down Camden Power Station, then what’s going to happen to the community? The entire community is looking at Camden Power Station for employment. When there’s a GO, for that 3 months or so Camden will bring in thousands of people to do some work here.
They get employment for that 3 months. Then they can manage to put food on their table. Some of our sisters are assisting those who are currently working for Camden Power Station to look after their kids and to do the housekeeping in their house. They will be affected. Even those who are running B&Bs. And there are those who are renting out rooms to workers. Then there are those mamas and gogos who are currently camping outside the power stations with their containers. They are cooking meals for us. At the end of the day, those people go back home with something so that they can put food on the table for their grandchildren and children.
And Ermelo is a strategic town. It’s in the centre of the region. So, there are people who are coming from Mkhondo municipality, others they are coming from Volksrust, Secunda, Standerton, you name them, they are working here at Camden Power Station. So the region, the district, will be highly, highly affected if Camden Power Station is decommissioned. A lot of us will suffer.
And there is a just energy transition investment plan that is going around underneath the carpets. In that document, there is a plan of R60.4 billion to decarbonise the whole of Mpumalanga. And you will find that they are not only talking about the power stations. They are also talking about repurposing coal mines. Which means there will be an apocalypse of jobs in mining and energy.
A!: There’s sometimes, as you know, a portrayal of the NUM, and of others in the industry, as dinosaurs. You are people who like to hang on to this old dirty coal instead of going forward with nice clean, renewable energy. But from what you say, I assume that if you are able to protect all jobs – you, the contractors, everybody, and the communities will be sustained at the same level as they are now. I presume you would have no problem with renewable energy at all. The problem you have with renewable energy is that as far as you can see, it’s going to destroy your livelihoods.
NUM: You are spot on. Look. We are not opposed to renewables. It is the approach where we have a problem. They even use the formula of the just energy transition. But there is no justice in this process. The process itself is unjust.
And it also creates less energy security. We need to have a stable and reliable supply of power for economic growth. So yes, we do not oppose renewables. They might just come in parallel to baseload power. Because there is no country in the world that is running on renewables without any sort of baseload.
The following were the NUM leadership in the interview:
Ntobeko Khanyile: Regional youth chairperson
Jabulani Mnguni: Camden branch secretary
Muzi Nkosi: Camden branch youth chairperson
Portia Ngomane: Camden branch youth secretary