Posted on October 2, 2010


High powered delegations from all three main trade union federations were busy yesterday (subs: Thursday) “putting flesh on the bones” of their submission to the energy summit which convened in Johannesburg this morning. The summit brings together a wide range of interest groups to discuss and hopefully to plot ways out of the power crisis.

By lunch time today there should be agreement about the first steps to be taken to address the power crisis in a sustained and carefully planned way. The broad policy framework — the “bones” — should, however, be solidly in place.

A draft framework put before the summit this morning resulted from discussions at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), the multi-sector policy advisory forum that unions have, in the past, accused government of neglecting. There now seems a widespread sense among the federation negotiators that Nedlac may be coming into its own.

Faced with the crisis, the representatives of government, unions, business and community groups in Nedlac seem to have reached consensus on a draft “Agreement on Electricity Emergency”.

This provides suggested policy outlines agreed by “all stakeholders”, including the ANC and government. Here, clearly, is the reason for public enterprises minister Alec Erwin’s backtracking on Wednesday on his suggestion that large price rises demanded by Eskom be applied “quickly”.

The Nedlac draft agreement makes it plain that this is simply not on. The forum is also putting forward a call for an efficiency audit of Eskom and for current and future pricing policies to be tabled at Nedlac for consideration before they are applied.

While the Nedlac representatives agreed that there should be a “move towards an economic tariff for electricity”, it was felt that necessary pricing levels should first be accurately ascertained. And any finally agreed price rises “should be phased in over five years”.

This would, as Erwin told parliament on Wednesday, “smooth the increases out”. But while it was the labour movement that apparently tabled the five-year suggestion at Nedlac, all parties seem to have agreed with it, apparently after some haggling about a three-year period.

A major reason for this was the recognition that Eskom tariff increases “could have significant negative socio economic consequences, particularly on the poor”. The labour movement should today spell out in some detail suggestions as to how the Nedlac call for “special arrangements to protect the poor” can be made a reality.

While there should be some debate about this issue there is likely to be none on the demand that load shedding — and consequent “rolling blackouts” — should be a last resort applied only in emergencies and then only under a protocol “negotiated with stakeholders”.

There is also no question of the blame game being played. The union federations have already made clear that they regard mismanagement at Eskom and governmental tardiness as being responsible for the power crisis. How to deal, here and now, with the crisis is now the sole priority.

Which is why, significantly, the unions, which have strongly resisted any moves to privatisation, have not dismissed private sector involvement in the future generation and supply of electricity. However, the draft Nedlac agreement does state that “public sector leadership in electricity provision” should be maintained.

There will also be a touch of sadness on the labour side at today’s summit: Federation of Unions of SA deputy general secretary Koos Bezuidenhout will stand in for general secretary Dennis George who is in Cape Town at the bedside of his father, Jimmy.

James John — “Jimmy” — George, leatherworker, trade unionist, shop steward, community activist and ANC councillor has been waging a long battle with cancer. An avid reader of this column, his comments have always been greatly appreciated.

Posted in: Archive - 2008