NUM general secretary Frans Baleni. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS
NUM general secretary Frans Baleni. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

ESKOM’s Medupi power station in Limpopo is emerging as the veritable battleground for dominance between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the two largest and most influential unions affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

The six-week-long strike at the nearly R100bn coal power station continues even after the intervention of Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba last week, halting building on the project which is already behind schedule. The power station is central to addressing South Africa’s power supply constraints, but about 17,000 workers there have been on strike since early last month.

The NUM complained to Cosatu during a meeting of the union’s top brass this week about the division of sectors among Cosatu-aligned unions. It has emerged that the strike at Medupi is at the centre of the NUM’s frustration with its co-affiliate, Numsa.

Both the NUM and Numsa organise workers at the station — the NUM organises construction workers, while Numsa organises engineering and metalworkers through contractors Hitachi and Alstom.

It is understood that the NUM had no dispute with management and is ready to go back to work, but cannot do so because Numsa is the majority union in the building phase, which is under way.

The sticking point between Numsa and management was over a disciplinary action against workers who had embarked on an illegal strike. Workers had initially downed tools after they were apparently shortchanged in their bonus payments last year.

NUM general secretary Frans Baleni on Wednesday confirmed that members were not directly involved but were affected by the impasse between Numsa and contractors. He declined to comment further.

Numsa organiser Steve Nhlapo said workers at Medupi would march on Friday over the company’s failure to pay workers’ bonuses in full and the pending disciplinary action.

On the other hand, NUM regional co-ordinator Sidwell Dokolwana said that his union was meeting management today in a bid to assist in ending the impasse.

He said NUM members were losing out due to the action by Numsa. "We were more than prepared to sign anything that will make workers return to work. Unfortunately our friends (Numsa) saw it differently."

NUM members would be able to return to work only once building resumed. He said the issue was "raised strongly" at an NUM leadership meeting and Mr Baleni was asked to raise it with Cosatu.

It is understood that the NUM is deeply unhappy about the manner in which sectors are divided among Cosatu unions. The issue was raised in "passing" at the central executive committee but would be dealt with in more detail later.

An insider said Numsa’s stance was puzzling since it had strongly opposed Eskom’s application for a 16% electricity tariff hike for the next five years yet it was causing delays to the project, in effect adding to Eskom’s costs burden.

Meanwhile, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba says he is in no mood to compromise on the timelines of getting the Medupi power station commissioned.

Speaking on Wednesday on the sidelines after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s budget speech, Mr Gigaba said: "We cannot afford another delay with Medupi. It cannot be delayed by even a week. We need to seal an agreement within the next seven days."

He said the deadline for Medupi’s unit 6 to come on line by the end of the year was non-negotiable, and he felt an agreement could be struck soon.

Mr Gigaba said unions and the contractors had narrowed their differences. "But once they sign an agreement they must then tell us (public enterprises and Eskom) how they are going to make up the lost time in order to meet the deadlines," he said.

With Paul Vecchiatto