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Striking Eskom workers plunged SA into stage 6 load-shedding this week. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD
Striking Eskom workers plunged SA into stage 6 load-shedding this week. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD

Eskom workers, whose protest action forced the country into stage 6 load-shedding this week, claim they cannot come out on their salaries.

As a result, they demanded a wage hike of 12%, which Eskom initially countered with an offer of between 4% and 5.3%. 

This didn’t fly, sparking a wave of shocking criminal behaviour from strikers — including petrol-bombing the homes of four plant operators.  

On Tuesday, as the country was plunged into the worst blackouts in three years due to the strike, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan announced there’d been a breakthrough, and a new wage offer would be tabled on Friday. 

It is understood that the revised offer is a 7% hike, which has already been rubber-stamped by Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, and William Mabapa, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers — though their members will have the final say.

It was enough to sway Jim and Mabapa into urging staff to return to work.

There is nothing to celebrate here. Effectively, Eskom’s unions held the country hostage for a raise exceeding inflation, in a state institution unable to keep its head above its debts of R390bn — and they did so illegally.

Jim said he “understands the anger” of the strikers, pointing to above-inflation increases in food and transport. But financial desperation is a relative term.

There is nothing to celebrate here. Effectively, Eskom’s unions held the country hostage for a raise exceeding inflation, in a state institution unable to keep its head above its debts

The country’s expanded unemployment rate stood at 45% at last count. That makes anyone who has work, however humble it may be, a member of an elite. 

It is surprisingly difficult to work out the full range of Eskom salaries, since that is not made public. But a confidential Eskom chart published by TechCentral in 2018 shows the ranges within each grade, which will have risen over the past four years.

This suggests a senior maintenance technician at Kusile power station (grade T12) could earn R352,000-R528,000 a year, if they have passed grade 12 and had three years of technical experience.

A clerk in Eskom’s offices in eMalahleni, with matric and computer proficiency, would earn R152,580-R228,780. Contrast that with a post-level 1 teacher at a government school (with a tertiary qualification) in 2022, who earned about R258,000. 

But even if Eskom’s workers feel they’re earning below the bar, they do not have the right to strike. 

Electricity supply is an essential service — so not only is it illegal to strike, but Eskom even went to court to get an order confirming this. This made no difference.

Alarmingly, the criminal behaviour went further, extending to intimidation, assault and, yes, petrol bombs.

Though Eskom says “disciplinary processes will commence once the situation is under control”, it needs to make an example of those who broke the law. 

Eskom’s biggest headaches include internal sabotage and cable theft: if its workers have only disdain for the law, how can they be entrusted with authority in one of SA’s most brittle institutions?

The unions have also overplayed their hand, and their complicity in plunging the country into darkness will only alienate more South Africans, already furious at the blackouts. 

As for those staff who broke the law, they deserve to be in a jail cell, with no further recourse to the public purse through an Eskom salary. 

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