Workers uncertain about Komati power station switch-off and the just transition

Drone picture of the Komati power station that is one of Eskom's first coal plants to be decommissioned as part of the power utility's 'just transition' from coal generation. Photo by Vincent Mpebe

The Komati power station is meant to make a complete switch-off by the end of September this year but workers say that they have not been consulted and are not sure what is going to happen to them.

With just few months before the complete switch-off of the Komati power station as a coal powered installation, workers claim that they were not consulted and that their future hangs in the balance.

According to Eskom’s plan, Komati power station in Mpumalanga, will be switched off completely as a coal powered station. In 2021 there was a buzz around the country when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that Eskom would convert its power plants to generate energy from renewable sources. This announcement was largely hailed as a good example of how South Africa can move away from coal dependency.

When Elitsha visited the plant in Middleburg in early May, it was business as usual with no sign of repurposing of the plant, apart from the solar photovoltaic panel in the parking lot which we were told was not even developed by Eskom employees. Workers at the plant say they have not been re-skilled as per the Eskom strategy plan and that outsourced workers do not feature in Eskom’s 2050 decommission plan.

Enos Modi, the Numsa secretary of the Eskom Shopstewards Council says that he is worried that government and Eskom don’t seem to be on the same page, with the presidential Climate Commission still busy working on a just transition framework that is supposed to inform energy transition at Eskom and other power producers. Yet, Eskom seems to be running a parallel transition plan even before the framework is finished. Modi says the Eskom plan also seems to be thin on details on a skills plan for all types of workers, especially the coal workers.

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“Eskom cannot have a just energy transition which takes Eskom out of the mix. I think the issue of re-skilling and re-training of current employees – if we were to single out people who work for Eskom – we are not sure if there is anything in that regard; we have not seen it,” Modi said.

Themba Mnisi, an Eskom employee since 2009 and a resident of Komati, said he fears the potential effects the switch-off will have and the way it has been handed to the community. “Crime will increase so high that even law enforcement will struggle to control it because many jobs are going to be lost”. His fears are not misplaced because Jabu Khanyile of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was quoted in Engineering News as having said that when the closure of coal mines was put to workers by mining companies, part of the assurance given to workers was that they would be trained and re-skilled, but there was never a follow-through.

Another Eskom worker, Zodwa Mthembu,  a senior plant operator for over 10 years said that she is confused about her future as she and her co-workers are not sure where they will be deployed. “They told us that they were going to transfer us to other power stations, but there is no proof to show where one is going to be deployed,” she said.

Brian Kamanzi from the institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) says that Eskom’s strategy is an “attempt to soften the impact of privatising electricity generation in South Africa.” Kamanzi also believes there will be a chain reaction of significant loss of livelihoods for workers and communities that benefit directly from the operation of the plant.

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Eskom’s media department did not respond to inquiries fromy Elitsha but Eskom’s just energy transition general manager, Mandy Rambharos, was quoted by Engineering News as having said that they are investigating the implementation of solar photovoltaic, wind, battery storage and, possibly, gas power generation projects at Komati power station.

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