South Africa’s state-owned power company, Eskom, said some workers were returning to their posts Wednesday, amid a strike over pay issues that caused severe nationwide power cuts. The rolling blackouts have dealt a blow to South Africa’s already ailing economy.
Some of the striking workers who are members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) — have heeded the call to return.
But the exact number of those who have resumed duties is still unclear, as the workers walked off the job without approval. Eskom’s spokesperson, Sikonathi Mantshantsha, said while some are back at work, there is still a high level of absenteeism.
He explained that despite the workers returning, the country remained on what is known as a Stage 6 alert regarding the outages.
“The system will still take some time to recover. As a result of the strike, maintenance work has had to be postponed and this backlog will take time to clear,” Mantshantsha said.
Stage 6, also known as loadshedding, means many areas are without electricity for at least six hours a day on a rolling basis. Eskom resorted to that stage only once before, for three days in December 2019.
The alert level is expected to go down in the coming hours.
Regular power cuts started in South Africa back in 2007 due to increased demand and aging coal power stations.
Energy analyst Chris Yelland said the strike, which started last week, simply aggravated an already bad situation.
“Eskom says that there were a number of units that had come off even before the industrial action but because of the industrial action, key people were not able to get access to the power stations,” Yelland said. “As a result, picketing at the power stations, intimidation, acts of violence and so people that needed to bring these units back on stream were not available.”
Workers from the two unions went on strike to demand pay increases of 10 and 12 percent. Union leaders will meet with Eskom on Friday to discuss the company’s latest offer, reported to be a 7 percent raise.
Meanwhile, Yelland is calling on the government to get rid of the regulations that give Eskom a near-monopoly over South Africa’s electricity market.
“And every effort should be made to remove all the restrictions that are preventing the private sector from building their own generation capacity. And that means domestic, commercial, industrial, mining, agricultural,” Yelland said. “They’ve all got to come to the table and be allowed to build their own generation facilities.”
If the government doesn’t act, he said, the blackouts will steadily worsen.
Economists, meanwhile, have warned of a ratings downgrade if the situation doesn’t change quickly.