South Africa’s state – owned power company, Eskom, said some workers were returning to their jobs on Wednesday amid a strike over pay issues that had caused serious nationwide power outages. The continuous power outages have hit South Africa’s already sick 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 resumed their duties is still unclear, as the workers walked away from work without approval. Eskom spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha said while some were back at work, there was still a high level of absenteeism.
He explained that despite the workers returning, the country remained on what is known as a Phase 6 warning regarding the disruptions.
“The system will take a while to recover. As a result of the strike, maintenance work had to be postponed and this backlog will take time to eradicate,” Mantshantsha said.
Phase 6, also known as load shedding, means many areas are without electricity for at least six hours a day on an ongoing basis. Eskom had only approached that stage once before, for three days in December 2019.
The warning level is expected to drop in the coming hours.
Frequent power outages began in South Africa in 2007 due to increased demand and aging of coal-fired power stations.
Energy analyst Chris Yelland said the strike, which began last week, had only exacerbated an already bad situation.
“Eskom says there were a number of units that had come down before the industrial action, but as a result of the industrial action, key persons could not gain access to the power stations,” said Yelland. “As a result, protests at the power stations, intimidation, acts of violence and therefore people who had to restart these units were not available.”
Workers of the two unions went on strike demanding 10 and 12 percent pay rises. Trade union leaders will meet with Eskom on Friday to discuss the company’s latest offer, which is said to be a 7 percent increase.
Meanwhile, Yelland is appealing to the government to get rid of the regulations that give Eskom an almost monopoly on South Africa’s electricity market.
“And every effort must be made to remove all the constraints that prevent the private sector from building their own generation capacity. And that means domestic, commercial, industrial, mining, agricultural,” Yelland said. “They should all come to the table and be allowed to build their own generation of facilities.”
If the government does not act, he said, the power outages will gradually worsen.
Economists, meanwhile, have warned of a downgrade if the situation does not change quickly.