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his week sus­pended work­ers trick­led into the Mo­gol Club in Lepha­lale, the town clos­est to the Medupi con­struc­tion site, to be re-em­ployed af­ter agree­ing to con­di­tions en­dorsed by Eskom.

But the at­mos­phere was still a tin­der­box, City Press found on a visit to Medupi this week, as work­ers shifted allegiances to com­pet­ing unions.

There is an alarm­ing crack in the con­trol that the Na­tional Union of Me­tal­work­ers of SA (Numsa) has over its mem­bers at the mas­sive Medupi Power Sta­tion in Lim­popo.

This week a se­nior union of­fi­cial, who asked not to be named, de­scribed the des­per­ate tightrope lead­ers have been forced to walk when deal­ing with sus­pi­cious work­ers, who of­ten did not un­der­stand the is­sues be­fore them.

“Even your own peo­ple can kill you,” he said, if they thought you weren’t help­ing them get the money they were due.

“Once some­one walks around spread­ing ru­mours that [they] have been short-paid, peo­ple jump on that and say ‘we want that money’, not know­ing ex­actly what money they are talk­ing about.

“You can be la­belled un­trust­wor­thy and on the side of the con­trac­tors,” he said.

Then there was the five-month-long work stop­page last year.

In March, work­ers at Medupi went on an al­most eight-week illegal strike that es­ca­lated into vi­o­lence and in­tim­i­da­tion. Hos­tels and other ac­com­mo­da­tion, as well as buses, were torched. Eskom said at the time it be­lieved much of the fury had stemmed from “de­mo­bilised” or re­trenched in­di­vid­u­als.

This is just the latest in a se­ries of pro­tracted strikes at the power sta­tion, which will even­tu­ally pro­duce about 4 600 megawatts of power.

Meschack Robin­sons, Numsa’s sec­tor co­or­di­na­tor at Medupi – said Eskom’s act­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive, Brian Molefe, had ac­cused Numsa of trea­son in a se­nior-level meet­ing in June, dur­ing the strike.

He said Numsa’s gen­eral sec­re­tary, Irvin Jim, had shot back: “Why don’t you ar­rest us then?” Eskom had not con­firmed the ex­change at the time of go­ing to press.

Numsa’s na­tional sec­tor co­or­di­na­tor, Stephen Nhlapo, said this week the three-month dis­ci­plinary process, in­sti­tuted af­ter the March strike, would de­lay the pro­ject by at least another year.

Eskom has taken a hard line af­ter that strike. Some work­ers were dis­ci­plined and about 1 400 em­ploy­ees were dis­missed. Their re­in­state­ment is still be­ing ne­go­ti­ated.

The Numsa of­fi­cial, who re­quested anonymity, said Eskom’s stance had been an “eye-opener for the work­ers”. Had Eskom taken this stance in 2013, when gen­er­a­tors, cars and cranes were de­stroyed and burnt in vi­o­lent strikes, more de­struc­tion might have been cur­tailed, he said.

In­stead of get­ting a free pass, as in the past, work­ers had to agree that the “no work, no pay” prin­ci­ple would be im­posed, mean­ing they would not be paid from the time the “un­pro­tected, illegal, un­pro­ce­du­ral, un­law­ful and vi­o­lent” strike be­gan. They also had to agree that their an­nual pro­ject bonus would not ac­crue.

Robin­sons said this week Numsa had been “bul­lied into tak­ing the deal”.

One of the mem­o­ran­dums of de­mand the work­ers had put for­ward at the be­gin­ning of the strike was for a R10 000 “com­ple­tion bonus” for Medupi’s Unit 6, which at the time was not fin­ished.

Robin­sons said: “I’m not sure where they got [that idea] from …” When Eskom put the de­mand to the con­trac­tors – who em­ploy Medupi’s work­ers – “they couldn’t be­lieve it”, he said.

How­ever, Pierre Bezuiden­hout from labour union Uasa said con­trac­tors had held a cel­e­bra­tion on the site when Unit 6 was com­mis­sioned in early March. Work­ers were fu­ri­ous they hadn’t been in­vited or given their own cel­e­bra­tions and a ru­mour spread that the con­trac­tors were get­ting the bonuses. The de­mand for this bonus has now been re­jected. Another griev­ance brought by the work­ers was that Asians were be­ing used to do weld­ing and boil­er­mak­ing, both jobs that lo­cal work­ers had been trained to do.

Robin­sons said only a few Numsa mem­bers had been in­volved in the strikes that turned vi­o­lent be­tween March and May.

But he ad­mit­ted that many of the peo­ple who burnt buses and bar­ri­caded the road to the con­struc­tion site had worn bal­a­clavas to hide their iden­ti­ties. He said 40 of the 1 400 iden­ti­fied were Uasa mem­bers.

The Numsa of­fi­cial who asked not to be named con­firmed later it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to iden­tify Numsa mem­bers in a crowd.

“If we are sure they are Numsa mem­bers, our jobs would be a bit eas­ier,” he said.

Part of the prob­lem was that there were too many unions, he said, and work­ers con­stantly changed al­liances if they felt their de­mands weren’t be­ing met.

There had been al­most no pos­si­bil­ity of rea­son­ing with the out-of-con­trol mob at the time the vi­o­lence broke out. Robin­sons said many of those in­volved were drunk or high – some prob­a­bly even on the no­to­ri­ous heroin-based drug nyaope, he al­leged.

One en­gage­ment Numsa of­fi­cials had had with mem­bers dur­ing the strike ended in fury as the crowd re­jected the agree­ments achieved be­tween its lead­er­ship and con­trac­tors. The Numsa of­fi­cial said he be­lieved the rejection started with a “few in­di­vid­u­als” who were not mem­bers of Numsa.

In Novem­ber, for ex­am­ple, a ma­jor fall­out be­tween work­ers and the lead­er­ship caused dis­gusted Numsa mem­bers to leave the union in droves and form the Lib­er­ated Me­tal­work­ers’ Union of SA.

The new union’s web­site says the Numsa lead­er­ship “op­por­tunis­ti­cally im­posed its will over that union through var­i­ous forms of despotic ma­nip­u­la­tion”.

Ac­cord­ing to the Numsa of­fi­cial, one ma­jor rea­son for the un­hap­pi­ness among mem­bers was their lack of ed­u­ca­tion and un­der­stand­ing of the prob­lems, and of the agree­ments the union had made with con­trac­tors and Eskom. “Some of us didn’t go to school to the high­est level; em­ploy­ees don’t un­der­stand,” he said.

How­ever, de­spite the ev­i­dent fric­tion in the union, the of­fi­cial said the Numsa lead­er­ship had not lost con­trol of its mem­bers.

ADAMANT Meschack Robin­sons

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