The Medupi power station under construction in Limpopo.
The Medupi power station under construction in Limpopo.

ESKOM’s actions in spying on stakeholders and gathering information on them at its Medupi power-station project in Lephalale, Limpopo, are said to be in breach of South Africa’s constitution and could be illegal.

Solidarity deputy general secretary Gideon du Plessis said the constitution prohibited the invasion of privacy and added that it was not proper for Eskom to resort to espionage in a democracy.

“We are shocked and outraged at the possibility that people’s privacy has been invaded. Eskom has created an environment of total distrust,” said Mr du Plessis.

“This action by Eskom confirms that their industrial relations system is failing and that the company resorted to covert operations, instead of fixing their industrial relations weaknesses.”

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesman Lesiba Seshoka agreed, adding that he was not surprised the union had been spied on.

“We are the NUM and we are used to people wanting to know what we are doing, even from the time we started operating in the 1980s. But it is still not right that Eskom is doing this at a time when South Africa is now a democracy,” he said.

Business Times has received numerous documents to support the claim that Eskom contracted special services company Swartberg to gather information on different stakeholders, including unions, employees, communities, green lobby groups and political players.

More documents received this week show that extremely personal information has been gathered on individuals. One example is of two organisers of Earthlife Africa, a green lobby group fighting against possible environmental harm caused by the construction of the Medupi power station.

The document outlines the Swartberg agents’ opinion on how well women seemed to look after themselves at one particular time — what colour nail polish they were wearing, their ethnicity and religious beliefs, whether they spoke English or not and how educated they appeared to be.

Other information passed on about the women included mobile numbers and when they last voted.

Commercial law attorney Paul Jacobson said it was legal for companies to gather information on, for instance, its workers if it was doing so in a relatively public context.

However, he said where companies collected personal information (which included preferences, beliefs and personally identifiable characteristics) in a private context and then disclosed it in a different context it might be a violation of the workers’ rights to privacy.

“Nevertheless, if the information collected and disclosed to others is factual there may not be actionable reputational harm,” he said.

A source said workers on the ground were unhappy that they had been spied on by Eskom via Swartberg, adding that rocks had been thrown at Swartberg vehicles.

He said that, following last week’s report on the spying, the word from Eskom was that the utility would plead “plausible deniability” on the matter.

The Democratic Alliance’s public enterprises shadow minister, Natasha Michael, said: “A state-owned enterprise spying on the DA or any other organisation for that matter is a scandal of the highest order. It is unethical and, to my knowledge, illegal.”

Democratic Socialist Movement spokesperson Weizmann Hamilton said Eskom’s actions confirmed that business was more concerned with profits than development.

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times